‘A Strange Loop’ is ushered to Broadway
Two years after winning a Pulitzer Prize, this ‘big, Black and queer’ show comes to theater’s main stage
Two years after playwright and composer Michael R. Jackson was named the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in drama, his musical, A Strange Loop, is finally making its “big, Black and queer” Broadway debut this week. This was by no means guaranteed, even if the world had not been afflicted with a pandemic — remember that time Lynn Nottage couldn’t find a Broadway home for her Pulitzer Prize-winning play? But with A Strange Loop, a Broadway Usher will take center stage (Usher, you see, is both the star character’s name and his occupation).
When A Strange Loop debuted off-Broadway in 2019, it was a clever, fearless satire of a medium (musical theater) that’s rife with easy targets. Usher, and therefore the man who wrote him, Jackson, seemed to have smoke for everybody: Tyler Perry, YouTuber Todrick Hall, the racism and general hypocrisy in the Broadway community. Usher is a writer and composer who feels alienated, especially in the spaces where a person might turn to escape the cruelties of the world. He’s too queer for church, too fat for the New York dating scene, too Black for Broadway, and too broke and depressed to pay off his student loan debt. He pours all that into his work and out comes a musical. The audience is watching A Strange Loop take place within Usher’s conscience as he’s creating it.
I spoke recently via Zoom with Jackson, producer Barbara Whitman and Jaquel Spivey, the actor who is making his Broadway debut with the role of Usher. Spivey played Usher in a previous Washington production at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, his first big professional role.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
How do you feel? You win a Pulitzer and then we have this seemingly endless pandemic. What’s it been like making this come to fruition on Broadway for two-plus years?
Michael R. Jackson: How don’t I feel? I feel excited. I feel nervous. I feel unsure. I feel all the feelings. And what does it feel like going into Year 3 of the pandemic and theater and all that? It feels like real life. That’s what it feels like. Real life is unpredictable. You never know what’s going to happen. And so that’s the very honest answer. I’m obviously very excited for the show and I’m hoping that whatever wave or surge or whatever, that it will, in a sort of Greek mythology way, it’ll subside for us. Like the plague will lift in enough time to get the show open.
One of the major themes in A Strange Loop is isolation — isolation in a place that is crammed with people. How did experiencing this pandemic affect the way you think about this musical?
Barbara Whitman: In 2019, the things he was saying were so new to all of us, or certainly me, from my worldview. And then after the whole social reckoning and the pandemic, I feel like the world finally caught up to Michael. And you hear the show in a different way today than you heard it in 2019. It’s not as surprising. It’s more like, ‘Oh, I get this.’ There’s just sort of a social context for what he’s saying after what we’ve all been through.
Also, after what we’ve all been through with the isolation now, when you get in that room, you feel everyone is so thrilled to be back live again. You just feel it in the audience in a way that was not quite the same. I mean, I feel this a lot of times when I go to theater these days, people are so grateful to be back. But especially this particular ride you take with Michael’s crazy show. They’re so excited. My guess is that was because, yeah, we all have spent two years sitting in our living rooms doing nothing and missing the human connection so much. It’s just such a beautiful story Usher tells about his life. And I think people are really primed for that.
Jaquel Spivey: When we finally got in front of an audience at Woolly [in November 2021], my biggest fear was people being like, ‘Who is this? What is this? Why are you here?’ And I’ll never forget our first audience just taking me in. They had masks on and everything, but I could see them smiling at me. I could also see when Usher was going through it, I could see them sobbing with me, you know? So it’s just something to feel supported while being onstage, especially because Usher’s so isolated in himself. It really takes seeing that people care enough to actually listen.
He just wants what everybody else wants. He just wants to be successful and be happy. How can you hate that? I think it brought a little empathy, the isolation did.
Usher is riddled with anxieties and neuroses about everything from self-doubt about his professional career to his romantic life to his body image. When you are thinking about that anguish, how do you reach that?
Spivey: Well, of course personal experience. I can tie a lot of things from Jaquel’s 23-year-old life to Usher’s. The thoughts in his head are a part of him, he can’t get away. But he also doesn’t want to deal with them. So it’s like this tug of war of, ‘I hear you, but I don’t, but you’re also making me do certain things that I don’t want to do.’
I feel like, because I’ve been through a lot of these things, I can just easily relate to that feeling of just being locked into yourself.
Tell us about that.
Spivey: I grew up a church kid and a church kid who was just feminine as could be, the sissy cousin, don’t want to play sports. If I do anything, I’m singing at the church. But it was always this thing of, ‘We love you, but, you know, God, He …’ and mind you, I’m a kid. I haven’t said I’m attracted to anybody or anything, but it’s just that, ‘We love you. But you know, be careful, you tipping the scale a little bit.’ I’m like, ‘What? I don’t know what that means.’ It’s affected me. It comes out sometimes in the show. But I think that’s the beauty of this show because there are so many Ushers out here and they relate to it and they always have a kind word for me.
How have you come to appreciate the beauty of yourself?
Spivey: Being in isolation and being in the pandemic, I had so much time with myself and I’m a natural-born workaholic. I was the one that was a full-time student and had two outside jobs. So I’m stuck with myself and then on top of that, I’m stuck with the A Strange Loop cast album in this pandemic. And I got called out by a lot of the songs, a lot of the songs I’m like, ‘Damn, geez, OK, that’s at me. All right. Thanks, Michael.’
To actually go through a callback process and to see that people see something in me … I just didn’t see myself working too much after graduation. I was like, ‘What can I do out here? My only option looks like the genie in Aladdin.’ And while that’s flattering, I don’t want to play that. But to hear people truly see me as an artist and as a person and to care for me, I think I kind of had to see the beauty in myself because people just kept telling me, ‘Do you understand? You can do this. You’re special.’ And I was always like, ‘Thanks, appreciate it.’ But to actually listen and take that in, it’s new for me, I will admit it’s new to hear kind words and take them in because of how hard I am on myself. Especially with things that I just cannot change.
The beauty of this show is that [Usher] doesn’t need to change. I don’t need to change anything. I need to get my s— together. I need to get some therapy, but I don’t really need to change anything about myself. I think that’s something that the show gave me that I’m actively working on now.
Has your family seen the show? What did they say?
Spivey: My aunt, she loved it. She saw it twice. She came for a preview and then she came back with my mom and it was my mom’s first time seeing me perform. A Strange Loop [at Woolly Mammoth] opening night was her first time. And you know, this isn’t Seussical. So to see a show like this, to see your son doing that and saying that, there was one moment where I couldn’t look at her, but I caught her and I could just see her cut her eyes. I said something like, ‘Usher, stay with me, stay with me.’ I think she’s still processing it. I think she’s still trying to understand the show, but I also think there’s a lot of Jaquel that she didn’t understand that was in Usher. … So, we haven’t had that conversation yet, but I’m sure it’ll happen very soon. But the rest of the family loved it.
Do you want Tyler Perry to see the show?
Jackson: I’ve been thinking a lot about this and I do if he’s open to it, do you know what I mean? Because the thing that I found sometimes when he comes up in terms of, in reference to the show, is that people seem to think I have a personal grudge with him and it’s truly not.
I’m interested in the artistic criticism. And for me, he is a billionaire and he has an audience of millions and millions and millions of loyal people, of which my mother is one. And so I feel like his work should and is able to withstand the scrutiny and the criticism. And I think not to criticize it or to not say it’s open to criticism actually suggests that it’s not significant work. And so if he’s open to seeing it, I would love for him to come. But if he would not feel comfortable seeing it or, and there’s all the reasons why he wouldn’t, then I would not want him to feel uncomfortable. I text him every once in a while. And I thought about mentioning it to him, but I sort of have for the moment decided to leave it alone.
I’m glad that you engage with him and take him seriously. Usher has to take him seriously because his family takes him seriously, as opposed to the way many critics talk about Perry’s work, which can be very condescending.
Jackson: Yes. And I would add that, in the show, even as Usher has this withering criticism of his work, he also appropriates it. And then that leads to other discoveries about himself as an artist that have literally nothing to do with Tyler Perry. And yet he couldn’t have gotten to that place without having put Tyler’s work through the crucible.