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Themes and Process behind a Pulitzer Prize–Winning Musical

Michael R. Jackson

The 2020 Pulitzer Prize–winning musical A Strange Loop has been lauded for going with unfiltered honesty where few other mainstream theatrical works have dared: to the center of the Black queer experience.

On February 25 via Zoom, Loop creator Michael R. Jackson appeared as the School of Communication’s second 2020–21 Hope Abelson Artist in Residence. In conversation with Dean Johnson, associate professor Miriam Petty, and director Lili-Anne Brown (C95), he spoke about his approach to and inspiration for the semi-autobiographical musical.

A Strange Loop follows Usher, who—as Jackson once did—works as an usher for Broadway’s The Lion King. He is overweight, Black, queer—and ghostwriting a new Tyler Perry play, a fraught exercise given Perry’s controversial representation of and standing with Black audiences. The musical uses the medium’s familiar forms to deliver an altogether different approach to parody: the paradox, trauma, and joy of being Black and queer and religious, which, as Johnson said at the start of the discussion, “gave me life.”

“Part of the project of A Strange Loop overall was I wanted to put the audience, whoever they were—even if they were other Black gay men or old white ladies or whatever—I wanted as much as possible to put them inside what it can feel like to be a person inside the Black church experience,” Jackson said. “It was an important training ground and a community for me as a kid. But what comes with that is also a lot of the homophobia and the sanctimony and the general sex negativity overall that is all so hypocritical. And in order to make the audience be inside that experience, I had to represent both sides of it at the same time.”

The musical takes aim at the work of Tyler Perry, the actor-director-producer-writer known for his Madea franchise. The character and its vehicles are criticized for their sometimes stereotypical take on Black life and use of homophobic tropes. Jackson discussed these phenomena at length with Petty, a scholar and critic of Perry’s work.

“There are actual people both in theaters and churches responding in the same way. That itself was a loop that I felt moving through my whole life and experience as a Black gay man, and it seemed important to offer that up to this audience, to sit inside of that,” Jackson said. “And the complexity and the sadness of that. And because these things have a real impact.”

Jackson’s other honors include an Obie Award, a New York Drama Critics Circle Award, a Drama Desk Award, a Lambda Literary Award, and a Fred Ebb Award. He currently serves on the Dramatists Guild Council.

As a Hope Abelson Artist in Residence over a three-week period ending March 5, Jackson also visited classes and led workshops for performers, dramatists, composers, and lyricists. The Zoom panel was organized by assistant professors of theatre Masi Asare and Roger Ellis.

The fall 2020 Abelson Artist in Residence was theatre director Moises Kaufman. The Hope Abelson Artist in Residence program was established at the School of Communication in 1990 through a generous gift from Hope Altman Abelson.