Michael R. Jackson, the playwright behind the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play “A Strange Loop,” says the Tony nominations are a testament to his hard work.
“It’s a real celebration … it’s been almost 20 years of me working on this piece,” Jackson told NBC News ahead of the 75th Annual Tony Awards ceremony on Sunday. “It was worth every second.
“Taking your time to make something good is worth it, and I feel that we’re seeing the fruits of our labor, my team and I,” he said.
The critically acclaimed musical has been nominated for 11 Tonys. The story follows Usher (played by Tony-nominated lead actor Jaquel Spivey), who is a Black queer man writing a play about a Black queer man. Usher — whose actual job is ushering for "The Lion King" — is also grappling with an inner dialogue that is narrated by six characters known as Thoughts. The musical explores sexuality, religion, coming out and the stigma against people living with HIV/AIDS.
The show, affectionately described as unapologetically Black and queer, has exploded in popularity since its arrival on Broadway in April. The play's fervor comes at a time when Black queer characters are still unrepresented on U.S. stages. But “A Strange Loop” remains a standout because it’s one of the few works that humanize the experiences of the Black LGBTQ community, said E. Patrick Johnson, the dean of the Northwestern University School of Communication.
“Historically, representations of Black queer people have been rare to nonexistent,” Johnson, who is also the author of “Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South,” wrote in an email. “And when we have been represented, those depictions have come at the expense of our humanity, steeped in stereotype for comic relief — the ‘sassy sissy’ or the self-hating ‘downlow’ brother.”
“A Strange Loop,” though, “captures the seldom seen interiority of Black queer life — the psychic trauma we experience from our families, our communities, and our country — and how we process and respond to that trauma — oftentimes through our creativity,” he said.
Devonta White of Harlem, who attended a performance of the show in early June, said it was exciting to see some of his experiences as a Black LGBTQ person displayed in a play.
“When I heard it was Black and gay, that was the most important thing to me,” said White, who is in his mid-30s. “It’s important for us to see ourselves in artistic work. Most of the plays that have queer characters are based in whiteness.”
Another audience member, Reni Esan, a college student in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, came to see the show after viewing a clip of a performance on TikTok.
“It looked so good I was like, ‘I’m going to be in New York, I have to come to see it,’” said Esan, 20.
The show’s discussions about religion and sexuality hit close to home for her.
“A lot of my religious trauma came up so I was definitely crying a lot,” she said. “I think the hopelessness and hopefulness of it all is really beautiful.”
Journey to Broadway
Jackson, a New York University graduate, said he started writing “A Strange Loop” in his early 20s as a monologue. He is now 41 years old. In the two decades leading up to snagging 11 Tony nominations, the play was workshopped in a gay porn studio in Manhattan.
“The fact that part of the show’s journey was in the back of the porn studio and then part of its journey is on a Broadway stage — only speaks to the big, Black and queerness of it all,” Jackson said.
John-Andrew Morrison, who received a Tony nomination for his performance as Thought 4, said the play’s spot on Broadway is a win in itself.
“For many years, we were workshopping this and we thought it would never ever make the light of day,” he said. “The fact that it has is already revolutionary.”
The play’s messaging is especially timely, amid a wave of anti-LGBTQ laws across the country, he said.
“The fact that there’s a show on Broadway and on the marquee of that theater it says ‘big, Black, queer American Broadway show,’ is revolutionary,” he said.
As Black gay and bisexual men continue to face disproportionately high rates of HIV diagnoses, the play also addresses HIV/AIDS-related stigma. In one scene, a chorus shouts “AIDS is God’s punishment” during a funeral for a member of Usher’s family who died of HIV/AIDS.
Jackson said the scene was partly inspired by Tyler Perry’s 2013 movie, “Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor,” which was criticized for its portrayal of people living with HIV/AIDS.
“There was a woman in front of me in a theater that said, ‘That’s what she gets,’ when Jurnee Smollett’s character finds out that she’s HIV-positive,” Jackson said.
“The way it was presented was almost like it was a punishment for their sins,” Jackson said. “And I just was struck by hearing that message on the screen, seeing that response in the movie theater, and remembering this message of AIDS is God’s punishment.”
Six years later, a friend of Jackson’s opened up about being a person living with HIV/AIDS. Soon after, Jackson’s friend died of AIDS-related complications.
“What started off as just, like, a satirical take on this Tyler Perry trope then became very real for me because a friend, a very close friend in my life, turned out to be HIV positive,” he said. “Suddenly it was right at my doorstep. I just started to think about … the impact of a lot of this ideology on people living with HIV/AIDS, and it just was something that I couldn’t avoid. It became part of my story, even though I’m HIV-negative.”
Jackson hopes that audiences can come to better understand why this messaging is so harmful.
“Something I’ve learned through this process with my friend is what I call the four S’s: silence, secrets, stigma and shame,” Jackson said. “I really saw how that affected him and how that contributed to his death.”
It also became the inspiration behind a loop in the musical, showing how religion and homophobia can fuel deadly HIV/AIDS stigma.
A spokesperson for Tyler Perry did not respond to a request for comment.
‘A light in the darkness’
Charles Ray Hamilton, 34, a TV and film writer, said it’s his third time watching “A Strange Loop” on Broadway. Hamilton says the work makes him feel seen as a Black queer person.
The musical, Hamilton said, is “a light in the darkness not only for Black queer people in this country but anyone that feels misunderstood by their parents or someone that has a dream that they feel is not commercial or contributing to capitalism.”
Johnson saw the play two times, once with a largely Black gay male audience and another with mostly white straight people.
“While there were striking differences in responses from each of those audiences for obvious reasons, what cut across both is that the themes of this brilliant musical are universal, despite the specificity of Black queer life,” Johnson wrote in an email.
“My hope is that this 'big, black queer-ass American Broadway show' marks the beginning of a cultural shift in what is possible when you see others as first and foremost, human,” he added.
Earning a Tony Award for “A Strange Loop,” Jackson said, would attest to the decades spent refining a piece that is tightly knit into the fabric of his identity and life.
“It would be an affirmation of just really sticking to your guns and being authentic and real and true,” he said. “That’s why I’m rooting for us to bring home the gold on Sunday.”