For GQ’s Give It Up series, playwright and composer Michael R. Jackson talks about the importance of Musical Theatre Factory, the organization devoted to underrepresented voices that first produced his Pulitzer Prize–winning musical A Strange Loop.
BY NAVEEN KUMAR
PHOTOGRAPHY BY TYRELL HAMPTON
June 22, 2020
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Michael R. Jackson has always felt ambivalent about Pride with a capital “P.” The outpour of dissonant corporate messaging come June (“fracking for Pride!”) is a cheery reminder of the way commerce latches onto identity—a sly point the playwright makes in his breakthrough musical, with a lead character whose name (Usher) is also his job.
Jackson admits that the success of A Strange Loop, about an aspiring musical-theater writer who is Black, gay, and trying to write himself into existence with “a big, Black and queer-ass American Broadway show,” means his own identity has been commodified in a way. Meta and self-referential, it’s both a sendup and a love letter to the form, skewering everything from sexual racism on Grindr (“My dick too small! Too fat and Black to live at all!”) to the Tyler Perry industrial complex.
The show is “a mirror in front of a mirror with an endless, looping corridor behind it,” Jackson says. After an acclaimed off-Broadway run at Playwrights Horizons last year, A Strange Loop earned Jackson the 2020 Pulitzer for Drama—a thrilling, unprecedented affirmation for a Black composer that is complicated by his restlessness within any kind of establishment.
“My queerness and my Blackness fit inside of my career,” says Jackson, 39, over the phone from his apartment in northern Manhattan. “The market has decided at this moment that my identity is valuable.” Jackson plans to continue challenging the system from within. One of his upcoming projects, a musical called White Girl in Danger, is about a Black teenager and the absurdity and psychological impact of tokenism, as he put it on Instagram.
Recently, he’s spent a lot of time itemizing his own values, trying to make sense of a surreal moment when great personal success collides with civic upheaval. “I’m not good at most things that are direct-action items,” Jackson says. “What I am good at is creating works of art that inspire people. The only thing I can control is what I do,” he says. Entertaining audiences while forcing them to confront their deepest assumptions head on is part of Jackson’s personal artistic mission. “The balance that I have found between working in capitalism and being anticapitalist is to be uncompromising about articulating that [contradiction] in my work.” Part of A Strange Loop’s brilliance is in its indictment of the broader systems that encourage self-hate, best shown by its protagonist’s propensity for tying himself in existential knots (“The second-wave feminist in me is at war with the dick-sucking Black gay man,” goes one line of Usher’s). Even those who have nothing in common with Usher can see some part of themselves in his messy, outrageous, often hilarious journey toward self-acceptance.ADVERTISEMENT
Jackson moved from Detroit to New York more than 20 years ago, with dreams of writing on One Life to Live, and studied playwriting at NYU. He settled on musical theater as the medium that best suited his tendency to pour inner turmoil onto the pages of his journals and into poems. After a decade of what he calls struggling in obscurity, he started to win grants and emerging-artist awards recognizing his potential; eventually, A Strange Loop got on its feet and attracted industry attention at Musical Theatre Factory, a grassroots organization deeply committed to fostering new work from underrepresented voices.
That’s why Jackson has chosen to spotlight MTF, which is mostly funded by individual donations. “MTF has decided that people like me, people of color, Black people, indigenous people, who love this form and want to make challenging work, need a space to do that,” Jackson says. “Even more importantly, we need a place to fail and to get better,” to build up the kind of strength it takes to withstand the pressures of the mostly white professional theater world.
“It’s said that theater is a beautiful school for empathy,” says Mei Ann Teo, MTF’s producing artistic director. “When we see any story played out in front of us, it is actually offering us an opportunity to understand how people change,” she says. Developing fresh voices from marginalized communities isn’t just about ensuring musical theater won’t die off altogether (we can’t keep “dragging The Music Man out of the nursing home” forever, Jackson says). It’s about who gets positioned as worth rooting for.
“When the bodies of unrepresented identities aren’t on stage, people don’t have the chance to see us as humans or have empathy for us,” Teo says. More than that, “the technology of liberation,” Teo suggests, comes from people who have been working toward it in their lives and in their art, not from gatekeepers who think they’re giving it away.
“We’re creating spaces for people to imagine a future that could be better. That’s some R&D shit that needs to be invested in,” Teo says.
English novelist Graham Greene famously suggested that hate is a failure of the imagination. For Teo and Jackson, nurturing artists who dismantle dominant ideologies in front of strangers in the dark looks like a path forward.
“Theater can be a great equalizer in terms of people recognizing the human condition,” Jackson says. “If you bring people together to have a shared experience, that can energize them to go out into the street to make the revolutions they want to see in the world. That’s certainly what I endeavor to do.”
Originally published in GQ: https://www.gq.com/story/michael-r-jackson-give-it-up