In Dialogue: Inner Life, Out Loud: A Strange Loop
Michael R. Jackson’s new musical A Strange Loop premiers at Playwrights Horizons this June in association with Page 73. Earlier this spring, playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Jackson sat down together for a long talk, covering their time at NYU/Tisch, Jackson’s coming into his own with musical theater, and “negro-liberalism.” What follows is a curated glimpse into that conversation.
May 24 – July 7
416 W. 42nd Street, Manhattan
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Rail): You just got back from Ucross, Wyoming [the Ucross Foundation artist residency]. Which is a place where I had a very profound experience, and it sounds like you did, too.
Michael R. Jackson: I loved it. I really appreciated the opportunity to go to a place that was just a wide open expanse. The thing I was struck by was... I felt there was no pretense at all. Everybody who was [living] there was just doing what they were doing.
Rail: It was real.
Jackson: It was very real. I’m so interested in reality right now.
Rail: That’s interesting, because I want to talk about the theater.
Jackson: That’s part of the reason why I’m interested in reality.
Rail: So why the theater, first of all? You’re maybe the only person who does what you do who also looks, thinks, and acts like you do.
Jackson: I got into theater as a little kid, as an actor. I grew up in Detroit. Then I was writing fiction and poetry going into high school. I went to Cass Technical High School in Detroit with [playwright] Dominique Morisseau.
Rail: There’s something in that water!
Jackson: There was this writers-in-schools program called InsideOut that’s dedicated to giving students a creative outlet, but also letting them see writing as a vocation and not just as a hobby. So by the time I got to tenth grade, I was writing fiction all the time. I was reading a lot as well.
Rail: May I ask what you were reading?
Jackson: What was I reading in tenth grade? … I don’t remember … Like, James Joyce?
Rail: Oh shit you were, like, reading reading.
Jackson: Alice Walker…
Rail: Not Jackie Collins?
Jackson: I did read Jackie Collins! It was hardcore. I read whatever was around. One of the writers in residence read a short story of mine and said, “This short story seems very cinematic, have you ever thought about writing screenplays?” And I was like, “No,” because I sort of thought movies grew out of the earth.
I went into NYU [Tisch’s Department of Dramatic Writing] knowing absolutely nothing about dramatic writing, I had never written a play in my life… When I got in, what I really wanted to do was write for soap operas. That was the thing that I wanted more than anything. Because I had grown up watching The Young & The Restless, Days of Our Lives, Another World, Santa Barbara; just everything. But in undergrad, I found myself being drawn to playwriting more than screenwriting or TV writing.
Rail: What was the stuff you were writing at the time?
Jackson: I was going through lots of consciousness and identity changes then… At that period I was learning even how to write a play, to whatever degree the NYU program can teach you that. I remember the play I spent most of my time working on there was this play called DL. It was terrible.
I had this really funny experience with it where we had a master class with Kenneth Lonergan. He brought two [white] actors to read pages from our plays. I had to listen to actors read this play with black characters who spoke in a black Southern dialect. And it was the most hilarious and uncomfortable ten minutes ever watching these people Foghorn Leghorn their way through the scene. This was Pre- Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion so there was no vocabulary to talk about why that was not okay. But it was a funny moment that I have held onto about the absurdity of theater. I think a lot about some of today’s generation and how so much of these kinds of experiences are expressed in terms of violence and trauma, and how when I was that age, I was just kind of like, “That was stupid.” It didn’t hurt my feelings, I didn’t feel oppressed by it. Or if it did, I just had to figure out how to navigate through it.
Rail: But you were aware of its absurdity.
Jackson: I was aware of its absurdity. But also there was no one to run to, to talk to about it.
Rail: My experience teaching at NYU was a revolving door of black students being like, “We heard you were black and you were faculty, can we download all of our feelings?” And I was like, “Sure.” They were like traumatized baby deer.
Jackson: It’s fascinating to me because the thing I can’t figure out is whether my generation or your generation were at a disadvantage because we couldn’t talk about violence and trauma, or were we at an advantage because we couldn’t talk about it and just had to soldier through it? Or is it both?
Rail: I do feel like it was an advantage because we didn’t have a prescribed way to deal with those moments of trauma. So I felt a freedom to do whatever I wanted to do [in the theater] in response. And I feel like I have a lot of students who legitimately are being shocked out of their impulses because they’re already policing those impulses. No one should feel that anything they bring into a workshop is life or death, but I think those are the stakes students feel these days. And if you can’t build a space in which someone is able to express themselves incorrectly, then no one’s going to get better.
Jackson: I.e., a safe space.
Rail: People think that a safe space means they have to feel safe. No, it’s not about feeling safe, it’s about being safe.
Jackson: I call those undergrad years the lost years. I learned a lot about myself during that time, but… I didn’t really find my voice until after I left the program.
Rail: Concurrently to all of this writing, where is music in your life?
Jackson: I started playing the piano when I was eight. My dad was a police lieutenant, and he got one of his officers to give my brother and me piano lessons. So we started playing, I kept doing that, and then I started playing at church.
That ended up being really important because I learned how to play piano by ear first. I gradually learned I had perfect pitch, and a lot of the playing I did ended up being very improvisational. A lot of that was just learning the chords and being able to follow the choir and the congregation. But I couldn’t write lyrics at all. I’d try to write songs, but I didn’t know song form so I could never put words to music. But I had a musical sense.
I was also writing in my journal and playing with language in poems and fiction. I had a facility for language, but at that point it was separate from music. So then, I went to undergrad and studied playwriting and started learning how to write a story. Then I graduated and was like, “What am I going to do with my life? I just studied playwriting for three and a half years.” This boy I liked encouraged me to apply to NYU for Musical Theatre Writing, and I got in. And then I was like, “Oh God I’ve never written a musical before.” But I went in as a words person only, with no aspiration to be a composer. I didn’t know how to write lyrics, but they sort of teach that quickly. Because I already had a facility for language, lyric writing became a perfect container for writing I had been doing all along.
Rail: Were you working a real job yet?
Jackson: I started ushering. And I also dealt with my first heartbreak during that period. It was just like a lot of stuff. Like I suddenly had to pay my student loans back, real life started coming at me.
Rail: [Laughter] Is that like when you realized that, unlike college, the world doesn’t actually care about you, because you’re no longer a customer?
Jackson: That’s right. The end of the first year of NYU Grad Musical Theatre Writing we got this assignment where the teacher was like, “If you’re a lyricist who’s never written music before, or a composer who’s never written lyrics, and you want to try it, go for it.” So I was going to try writing my own song for this class, and what came out of that was my own song called “Memory Song.” Which is in A Strange Loop—although at that point it was just a standalone song. And somewhere along the line Ira Weitzman [the head of musical theater at Lincoln Center] came to hear student work, and he was into the song. At a certain point he asked “Are you writing any of this music down?” And I was like: “No, I don't know how to do that.”
Rail: So you were just composing by ear and just, like, remembering it?
Jackson: Right. So [Ira Weitzman] gave me a copy of this notation program called Finale which helps you actually put music to paper. And so I painfully started teaching myself how to do that—and my scores were terrible, and I showed my composer friends, and they started giving me little tips. And then I met my friend Adam Wiggins, who became my copyist, piano arranging right-hand man. And I did some concerts, at places like Ars Nova and Joe’s Pub over the years while also working on some short plays. Someone introduced me to Maria Goyanes who directed them at the Rebel Verses Theatre Festival where I had originally done this long monologue called “Why I Can’t Get Work” which was the seed for A Strange Loop.
Rail: Yeah, but it was essentially a collection of smaller pieces that eventually merged into a bigger thing.
Jackson: Yeah, because the monologue was a personal reflection on being this very thinly veiled version of me walking around New York being like, “What the fuck. I’m black and gay and the world is terrible.”
Rail: So when did you find out that you were black and gay? If you felt like your college were the white-washed lost years, did they happen at the same time, did they happen one at a time?
Jackson: It’s interesting because the college years were white-washed years, but the high school years weren’t. Because I grew up in a black city, a black family, and black gay boys were everywhere… but when I moved to New York suddenly it was white people everywhere, white gay men ruled everything socially. And I had to totally adjust to that.
That's a big part of my ethos. To me, A Strange Loop is a kind of conversation back and forth, and the audience is part of it. And that's another reason why I'm so not interested in weaponizing race or anything about it. Yes, [the show] is very black and very queer, but that's not from a defensive place. There's something for everybody to learn from and to offer to that experience, you know? And it's important to me that, like, the show and the production really leans in, that the audience leans in, and that the show leans in to the people there.
Rail: I feel like for the first time ever, people are calling their work “black.” I think the catchphrase is “unapologetically black.”
Jackson: Unapologetically Black?
Rail: Yeah, I guess. I don't know why this is my train of thought, but I get anxious about turning blackness into a monolith. What is the aesthetic of “blackness” that you feel like you're working with? What does it mean for your work to be very black?
Jackson: I mean, it's my blackness. It's cultural blackness, it's intellectual blackness, it's artistic blackness, it's just black.
Jackson: To me it means all of the cultural signifiers and also all of the oppression. Like, all wrapped up in one. So “unapologetically black,” yes, but also “non-self-aggrandizing black,” too. A Strange Loop is a piece that is in conversation with itself and with the world, you know? I wrote it from a place of wanting to communicate something about perception versus reality. It's about being alive, it's about being a person. And the person telling the story is black and queer. You know?
Rail: No, I agree. But I always get so interested in the moments where I feel a slippage in terms of marketing. Like things will come up about "The Black Experience."
Jackson: That reminds me of this term I love that a friend hipped me to recently: “negro-liberalism.” I'm not interested in selling blackness to anyone. I just want to express what my position is from within it, and you can engage with that however you want.
Rail: I don't think there's a lot of conversation among black artists about their entanglements with whiteness. And how their voices are almost fully enabled because of white institutions, white kind of like audiences, white patronage, white criticism, and there's like very little interest in untangling that, or talking about that entanglement. And I just wonder what that is.
Jackson: And I think even in addition to that there are some people who may have very well grown up in all black contexts. And within those all black contexts, there's still conflict. If you are a black person who doesn't really align with what it means to identify as an American descendent of slaves, there can be conflict there and there's things that you can learn. And it has nothing and everything to do with whether or not you have a white boyfriend, for example.
Rail: Yeah. To even identify as black is to acknowledge an entanglement with whiteness. It is defined by entangled whiteness. So is there an implicit paradox in the idea of blackness? I mean, black-centered storytelling is a thing, but whiteness still lurks somewhere, it still haunts it, you know?
Jackson: In A Strange Loop there's a lot of loops within loops of identity or conflict. And some of those conflicts have to do with black folks, black bodies coming into contact with white institutions or people or whatever and having to deal with that. But at the same time, there's a thing that happens throughout the piece, I hope, where black identity bounces out of that experience and is thinking about other things that are not that. Whiteness doesn't become the border for the entire play and identity. But it is a piece of it, you know? I go see plays and there seems to be such keen interest in indicting white people for what it “means” to be black that very little time is spent in the sort of interiority of what it can mean to be black and not only oppressed by those forces.
Rail: There’s this idea of, “Okay, once you’ve shouted down the oppressor, then what happens? Who are you now, if not defined in relation to this thing?”
Jackson: And it's funny, the thing you always hear is, "We need to talk about race, we need to talk about race," and it just feels like this exercise in reassuring white people about something, and it's never about helping black people learn anything. As black writers we have to spend so much time explaining to white people what it's like [to be black] or how it feels that we don't spend any time talking amongst each other about—
Rail: Anything else? [Laughter]
Jackson: About anything else.
Rail: Yeah, I mean, I think that's the big question right now. We were all going through the year of plays about slavery—
Jackson: Or police violence.
Rail: Or police violence. And now it's like, we've done those now, and so what else gets written about? Are we truly defining blackness as a tragic state here? Or, could it be a label worth totally queering?
Jackson: And there have been people who would like try to do it. Like, Alice Walker literally wrote Possessing the Secret of Joy.
Rail: Which is why I think Strange Loop is so singular. I have been thinking a lot about black life writing. On some level there is such a strong tradition of black writing about representation. It’s all these black writers trying to express something that is impulsive and of them in a space that’s constantly telling them, “We don’t buy this, we don’t believe this.” That’s why you have the persistence of slavery as a theme in a lot people’s work. I had this moment where I noticed there was this really weird division in our field wherein all the white writers I knew were writing these stories that were frequently pulling from some autobiographical material or referencing their hometown, but every single black writer had to move through this glass of writing about history and ideas and representation. And I always thought: Why is that? Why do black writers become the custodians of history as opposed to the present? And then there’s this idea in [A Strange Loop] of, “Okay here is somebody who is literally writing about their life in the moment of now.”
Jackson: It’s funny you should bring that up, because that is something I did in part because of my frustrations with the form of musical theater. It was so white and so elitist, and there weren’t any black musical theater writers that I knew of breaking through. And when you did see black characters in roles in stories, they’d always be set in the past. Because then in Dreamgirls it allows Henry Krieger to channel his love for ’60s black music or Marc Shaiman to take on the Civil Rights Era (and also channel his love for ’60s black music). Are the only depictions of black people in musicals going to always be us sha-la-la-ing in the background and wearing bouffant wigs? It wasn’t until I saw Kirsten Childs’ The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin or Passing Strange [by Stew] that I was like, “OTHER THINGS ARE POSSIBLE.” I so flipped for that piece.
Rail: I don’t think Passing Strange really gets its due anymore.
Jackson: It doesn’t!
Rail: It’s a man reflecting on his life.
Jackson: And that alone is amazing when you just look at the whole landscape of musicals. But A Strange Loop was also really inspired by Liz Phair’s 1993 album Exile in Guyville because of how taken I was by this young woman chronicling her feelings of rage and alienation with men she was dating in an indie rock context and doing it with such humor and grace and honesty and audacity and vulnerability. I actually believe it’s a musical theater piece itself with a very clear beginning, middle, and end. And I wanted to make something that made me feel like that album makes me feel, but be about something I understand: Being a black gay man struggling with self in a contemporary context.
Rail: There’s something in that idea of emotional space as the frontier. One of the things I really love about A Strange Loop is that it feels like it’s about being alive. Trying to communicate the texture of being alive, and it matters that this black male protagonist lives. And I feel like that’s new, to be honest. You clearly think life is important. Why? What’s the point of staying alive? Why stay alive?
Jackson: So we can be with each other.
A Strange Loop, with Book, Lyrics, and Music by Michael R. Jackson, Directed by Stephen Brackett, plays May 24 – July 7, at Playwrights Horizons’ Mainstage Theater (416 W. 42nd Street, Manhattan) in association with Page 73. For tickets and further info: www.playwrightshorizons.org or www.page73.org.