'A Strange Loop' writer and composer started out on Broadway as an usher
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. The show that won this year's Tony Awards for best musical and best book for a musical was written and composed by my guest, Michael R. Jackson. One of the cast members became the first trans person to be nominated for a Tony.
The show, called "A Strange Loop," also won a Pulitzer Prize for drama. Jackson started writing it when he was working as an usher at the Broadway show "The Lion King." He describes his show as a musical about a young, Black, gay musical theater writer named Usher who works as an usher at a Broadway show. In the play, Usher is writing a musical about a young, Black, gay musical theater writer named Usher, who works as an usher at a Broadway show and is writing a musical about a young, Black, gay musical theater writer named Usher. That is one of the strange loops that the title refers to.
"A Strange Loop" is a comedy and drama about self-loathing, feeling stuck and wanting to change, and about Usher's churchgoing parents, who fear his sexuality will condemn him to eternally burn in hell. Usher's inner feelings are personified by characters called his daily self-loathing, his supervisor of sexual ambivalence, his inner white girl and others. Jackson says the show isn't autobiographical, but there are definitely parallels to his own life. Let's start with the opening song called "Intermission Song." Usher is played by Jaquel Spivey, who was also nominated for a Tony.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INTERMISSION SONG")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, singing) Usher, usher. Usher, usher, usher. Usher, usher. Usher, usher, usher. Usher, usher. Usher, usher, usher. Usher, usher. Usher, usher, usher. Usher, usher. Usher, Usher, usher.
JAQUEL SPIVEY: (As Usher) Can I really write this?
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, singing) How many minutes till the end of intermission? Is that how the show should open? Should there even be a show? No, it should start with what he's thinking, which is just a cursor blinking 'cause of all of the directions that the narrative could go.
SPIVEY: (As Usher, singing) He wants to show what it's like to live up here and travel the world in a fat, Black, queer body.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, singing) How many minutes till the end of intermission? No one cares about a writer who is struggling to write. They'll say it's way too repetitious and so overly ambitious, which, of course, makes them suspicious that you think you're (inaudible) white.
SPIVEY: (As Usher, singing) He has to fight for his right to live in a world that chews up and spits out Black queers on the daily.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, singing) Blackness, queerness fighting back to fill this cis-het, all-white space with a portrait of a portrait of a portrait of a Black, queer face and a choir full of Black, queer voices, treble clef and also bass that are casting spells to conjure up a big, Black and queer-ass American Broadway - big, Black and queer-ass American Broadway - big, Black and queer-ass American Broadway show.
GROSS: Michael R. Jackson, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the Tonys and the Pulitzer. As I mentioned in the introduction, there are performers who personify Usher's inner voices - his daily self-loathing, the supervisor of his sexual ambivalence, his financial advisor and his inner white girl. So most of us are familiar with that inner voice of daily self-loathing although it comes in different flavors. What was your flavor?
MICHAEL R JACKSON: My flavor was always thinking that I wasn't attractive enough, that I, you know, was awkward, that I didn't fit into certain groups of people. You know, at different periods of my life, I think I was concerned about whether I was, quote-unquote, "Black enough." So it sort of manifested in lots of different ways.
GROSS: Well, in terms of questioning whether people perceived you as being Black enough, one of Usher's inner voices is his inner white girl. Who is she?
JACKSON: The inner white girl is a kind of abstract concept that mostly refers to the singer-songwriter women that Usher really admires artistically whose work really lives in a really free space where they get to express themselves in a full, emotional continuum and in a way that he feels that he cannot express himself in his work but also in life.
GROSS: I think part of what Usher admires about them is their ability to express vulnerability, which he feels that he can't in his art or in his life. And I'm wondering if you felt that way, too.
JACKSON: Yeah. I would definitely say, you know, growing up, there was a lot of music that was being played that did not match my inner life. And I didn't even really realize at that point until it was put in front of me that there were any songwriters who did sort of sing about their inner lives from a very vulnerable place or from a place of candor or anything. Like, I just thought all music was just kind of straightforward pop music, and I didn't know about singer-songwriters until a certain point. And once I encountered - started encountering them, and in particular, Tori Amos, who is, like, sort of this - one of the most important influences on me as an artist - I suddenly realized, oh, you can actually talk about gnarly feelings in a song.
GROSS: I want to ask you about another one of Usher's inner voices. And this is the inner voice that's checking in to see if he's found his unapologetic Blackness yet because his numbers are in the toilet with the Black excellence crowd and he's close to cancellation. What's that about?
JACKSON: That's, you know, this sort of story that has to do with Usher not feeling like he is in the in-group of Blackness and that he's not sort of hitting his marks as a respectable Black person who fits in socially and who says all the right things and wears the right clothes and has the right opinions and so on and so forth.
GROSS: Well, advice Usher is given includes, you need to make your show about police violence, slavery and intersectionality 'cause that could be really lucrative. Did you feel that way yourself?
JACKSON: I mean, all - what I will say to that - I'm always a little coy about this - is, like, just look around. Like, what stories do you see often getting produced? They are those stories. And like, the - and the language and the sort of - the rhetoric around what representation is or should be often ends up boiling down to, you know, a binary of trauma versus joy.
GROSS: That's an interesting perception. And where do you think you fit in on that scale, if at all?
JACKSON: I don't fit on that scale (laughter).
GROSS: You just reject that scale. Yeah.
JACKSON: No, I'm trying to, like - the God I worship is nuance and complexity and boundary-pushing and risk-taking and truthfulness. Like, I really am interested in, like, is it real? Do, like - what are the things that people feel but don't say? What - like, what new ground can be covered particularly in, you know, Black storytelling? - because so much respectability is about, don't say this in front of white people. And I'm just, like, not interested in that. I'm interested in saying what's on my mind or testing out ideas, like getting characters to argue about something. What are the questions that we're not asking? What are the complications that we're not facing? What's the truth?
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. Let me reintroduce you. My guest is Michael R. Jackson, and his musical, "A Strange Loop," won this year's Tony Awards for best musical and best book for a musical. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF LITTLE SIMZ SONG, "OFFENCE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Michael R. Jackson. His musical, "A Strange Loop," won this year's Tonys for best musical and best book for a musical. It also won a Pulitzer Prize for drama. He wrote the book as well as the music and lyrics. Jackson describes "A Strange Loop" as a musical about a young, Black, gay musical theater writer named Usher, who works as an usher at a Broadway show. And in the play, Usher is writing a musical about a young, Black, gay musical theater writer named Usher, who works at a Broadway show and is writing a musical about a young, Black, gay musical theater writer named Usher.
Is there, like, anything specific you can point to for people who haven't seen the show in "A Strange Loop" that you think people think but are unwilling to say?
JACKSON: You know, I think the - for example, the sort of argument that is posed about what Black artistic work should be and using the Tyler Perry work as a sort of comparison is one thing. Like, in - there's a song on the show called "Tyler Perry Writes Real Life" wherein Usher is asked by his agent to ghostwrite a Tyler Perry-style gospel play. And he says no for a bunch of reasons that have to do with him thinking not highly of Tyler's work.
And then he's confronted by the, quote-unquote, "ancestors" who admonish him for not sort of seeing the financial possibilities of taking on such a project. And - but then he sort of counters to them that, you know, he thinks that his plays are not good for Black people. But then they counter back that it doesn't matter because the money is too good. And I just think that that's, like, an argument that you hear all the time that I wanted to dig a little deeper into.
GROSS: Well, let's hear the song that you just referred to, which is called "Tyler Perry Writes Real Life." So it starts with the voice of Usher's agent.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TYLER PERRY WRITES REAL LIFE")
JOHN-MICHAEL LYLES: (As Thought 3) I know it's been months since we last spoke. And I have no idea if this is of any interest to you or if you have any materials to send, but we just got a call for submissions for something very exciting, especially for you.
SPIVEY: (As Usher) Oh, yeah. What is it?
L MORGAN LEE, JAMES JACKSON JR, JOHN-MICHAEL LYLES, JOHN-ANDREW MORRISON, JASON VEASEY AND ANTWAYN HOPPER: (As Thoughts, singing) Tyler Perry, Tyler Perry, Tyler Perry.
SPIVEY: (As Usher) Oh, no.
LEE, JACKSON, LYLES, MORRISO, VEASEY AND HOPPER: (As Thoughts, singing) Tyler Perry, Tyler Perry, Tyler Perry.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, singing) Hell no.
LYLES: (As Thought 3) It seems he's gotten so busy with film and TV that his team is looking to farm out the gospel plays to a ghostwriter. It'll be a scream. And didn't you once tell me that your mother would love nothing more than for you to write one? So how 'bout it, Ush? Just write a sassy matriarch, a lonely spinster who loves God. Throw in a few "Color Purple" quotes. What do you say?
SPIVEY: (As Usher, singing) Thank you for the opportunity.
LYLES: (As Thought 3) Of course, of course.
SPIVEY: (As Usher, singing) But Tyler would be none too fond of me.
LYLES: (As Thought 3) Now, don't sell yourself short.
SPIVEY: (As Usher, singing) The crap he puts on stage, film and TV makes my bile want to rise.
LYLES: (As Thought 3) I know, your integrity (laughter).
SPIVEY: (As Usher, singing) Nothing that he writes seems real to me.
LYLES: (As Thought 3) Yes, you think he sucks.
SPIVEY: (As Usher, singing) Just simple-minded hack buffoonery.
LYLES: (As Thought 3) But no white theaters will touch you.
SPIVEY: (As Usher, singing) If I try to match his coonery (ph), he'd see through my disguise.
LYLES: (As Thought 3) Just think about it.
SPIVEY: (As Usher, singing) It's true. I'm still emerging, looking to make my start. But not so hungry that I'd ride the chitlin' circuit. I'm into entertainment that's undercover art. My mission is to figure out how just to work it. Today...
GROSS: So that was the song "Tyler Perry Writes Real Life," from the Broadway cast recording of "A Strange Loop," which was written by my guest, Michael R. Jackson, who also wrote the music and lyrics for the show. So that song's very, you know, humorously critical of Tyler Perry's work with a formula of a sassy matriarch, a lonely spinster who loves God and a few quotes from "The Color Purple." Did you grow up with his work? Did your parents love his work? Like, what's your connection - what's your personal connection to Tyler Perry movies and-or shows?
JACKSON: I did not grow up with his work. I wasn't made aware of them until I got to college. And my best friend Kisha (ph) sort of was like, have you heard about this guy? And as a sort of gag gift for her birthday that year, I bought me and her tickets to see his play, "Why Did I Get Married?" that was playing in New York City at the Beacon Theatre. And we went to it, and we both were just, like, really struck by the fact that it was, like, a packed house. It was, like, pretty much an all-Black audience, which I don't think either of us had really seen before.
And it was funny because, like, we were, like, playwriting students at NYU at this time and, obviously, like, you know, minority students in a predominantly white institution. And so - but both of us from Black cities. So we - it wasn't like it was foreign to us of being in Black spaces. But seeing this particular kind of work, which in a lot of ways reminded us of back home of watching, like, you know, Black history programs that we would do at church or Christmas programs or Easter programs, and, like - it had that feeling. And so I became - that sort of began my curiosity about his work, especially as it then began to blow up into TV and film.
And so I would watch the movies. And I would see some of the TV shows. And I would also continue to watch some of the stage plays that would be recorded for DVD. And I then would, like, find out that, like, my mother was, like, a huge fan of his work, and other people, you know, around me were as well. And something that they would sometimes say was that they liked his work because it was like real life. And I just found that to be a really baffling assessment of what I was seeing because I was like, I know what it reminds me of back home. But real life is not what I thought of it. And the more I sort of sat with that idea, the more that Tyler sort of became my white whale....
JACKSON: ...That I was chasing. And then especially when I saw - and this is well into me working on drafts of "A Strange Loop" - when I saw the 2013 film "Temptation: Confessions Of A Marriage Counselor," wherein two women are stricken with HIV/AIDS sort of as punishment for their having sex with this bad man, who was, like, a devil man. And I just was so blown away by that and how, like, there's all this, like - this weird religious moralism in his work. And in the theater where I watched "Confessions Of A Marriage Counselor," this woman - once one of the characters is announced to have gotten HIV from another character, she goes, that's what she gets. And that reminded me of back home. That - like, that was my real life of, like, people sort of saying, you know, really negative things about sexuality. And it wasn't in a gay context, but it all felt of one piece to me. And so I sort of began, really, in earnest dealing with the satire of what Tyler's work represents and what it can lead to.
GROSS: So deeper into that song, in a part that we didn't hear, several characters come out, identifying themselves as Harriet Tubman, Jimmy Baldwin, Whitney, Marcus Garvey, Zora Neale Hurston and "12 Years A Slave." And they all accuse Usher of being a race traitor or something worse. Can you talk about coming up with that idea?
JACKSON: Yeah. I just think I wanted to do something that was, like, a hoot. And the idea that the ancestors would come out of their grave to defend...
JACKSON: ...Tyler Perry felt like just, like, a way of actually having an argument that wasn't one-dimensional about what Usher's issues with Tyler Perry's work was. I wanted them to defend Tyler Perry's work vigorously and to stand up for the voices of people who really love his work, because I think it's very easy - and Tyler has had this criticism almost his entire career, particularly once he started to become more successful and well-known and kind of a household name, is I just didn't want it to be as simple as, his work is not respectable enough because that's not really what Usher or my critique is. I wanted it to be about evaluating the idea that his work is representing Black life in a realistic way, you know? And I just felt like getting the ancestors out there to kind of send that idea up on fire was a really fun but also rigorous way of having that conversation.
GROSS: I was kind of pleased to read, though, that he got in touch with you and, you know, kind of congratulated you on the play and that you're on decent terms. Like, it's nice to know you can be...
GROSS: ...Really critical of somebody else's work and still appreciate each other on some level.
JACKSON: Yeah. I don't know - I don't totally know how to characterize what our relationship is at this point. We have not actually met. But we've had a couple of conversations, once on the phone and then we text each other every once in a while. And he's always very congratulatory if something happens with the show. So when I won the Tony, he texted me to congratulate me. And then we ended up talking about the show because he still hasn't seen it. And by this point, people who know him and are friends with him have seen it, some of whom had told him that he must see it and some of whom have seen it and told him that he must not see it.
And so I think he's sort of on the fence about whether - like, whether he can handle it or not or whether it would be a good idea. And I told him that I think it's totally up to him and that he does not need to see the show if he feels like it's going to piss him off. And I get it, you know? But at the same time, he is - he has been very nice to me, all things considered. And I appreciate that. He doesn't have to do that. And I told him that, you know, I think that he and I should break bread at some point.
GROSS: My guest is Michael R. Jackson. He wrote the book and the songs for the Broadway musical "A Strange Loop," which won this year's Tonys for Best Musical and Best Book for a Musical. The cast recording has been released. We'll hear more music from the show and talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TODAY")
SPIVEY: (As Usher, singing) I am a Disney usher. I'm barely scraping by. My discontentment comes in many shapes and sizes. When I wake up each morning, I tell myself to try. I tell myself that I will make no compromises today. A meeting with my landlord, who makes me miss my train - and I smell awful 'cause there is no time to shower.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Michael R. Jackson. His musical "A Strange Loop" won this year's Tonys for best musical and best book for a musical. It also won a Pulitzer Prize for drama. Jackson describes it as a musical about a young, Black, gay musical theater writer named Usher who works as an usher at a Broadway show. In the play, Usher is writing a musical about a young, Black, gay musical theater writer named Usher who works as an usher at a Broadway show and is writing a musical about a young, Black, gay musical theater writer named Usher. Jackson was working as an usher at the Broadway show "The Lion King" when he started writing "A Strange Loop."
Let's talk about church in your life 'cause church plays a significant role in "A Strange Loop." In "A Strange Loop," Usher's parents are churchgoing people, and they really think that his sexuality is going to condemn him to hell. And they think, as an act of love, they should prevent him from being homosexual to save him. And, of course, that's - that help he rejects. So let's talk about church in your life. I know your mother was the recording secretary?
JACKSON: She was the church secretary.
GROSS: The church secretary, and your father was a trustee. And you were in the choir, and I think you played piano at the church, too?
JACKSON: I sang in, like, the children's choir as a little, little kid. But I primarily played for the children's choir as I got older, and I also played for the older ladies choir for a period of time.
GROSS: Is there, like, a especially favorite or meaningful hymn or gospel song that you used to do in church?
JACKSON: It wasn't a song that I played, but it was a song that was sung at church that I really loved called "Till I Can Journey On" - I think was the name of it. And I always loved hearing it sung.
GROSS: So I know you have a good voice 'cause I've heard you sing on the internet, and I'm wondering if you could sing a few bars for us if you're comfortable.
JACKSON: Sure. It went...
(Singing) You gave me the strength to make it through another day. All the strength I had from yesterday was all gone. All the pressures from yesterday took all of my strength away. You renewed my strength, and now I can journey on.
GROSS: Oh, thank you for singing that. I could see why it was meaningful to you. So you were in this position at church where, you know, you had a prominent position, you know, playing for the choirs, singing in the choir as a child, but also having to hide your sexuality because that would have been very disapproved of in church. Did the preacher preach about the dangers of homosexuality? Did you have to sit through sermons like that?
JACKSON: There was - frequently, what would happen is the sermon could be about, like, anything. It would start in, like, one scripture. There would be a topic. And somehow it would, like, meander around to condemning homosexuality or other kind of sins of the flesh. That happened - I wouldn't say that happened every Sunday, but it happened enough that - especially at the point when I realized that I was gay - that it became very bothersome to me.
GROSS: I want to play another song from "A Strange Loop," and this is called "Periodically." And it's a voicemail that Usher's mother leaves to wish him a happy birthday 'cause it's his 26th birthday, which is falling on the 26th day of the month, which makes it seem extra special. But the song turns into a reminder - after, you know, the mother talking about how much she loves Usher, she kind of segues into talking about how homosexuality isn't right with God or with hell, and that hell is real. So let's hear an excerpt of "Periodically." And "Periodically" refers to - that periodically, the mother likes to remind him that hell is real and homosexuality is, like, a filthy, unholy desire.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PERIODICALLY")
JOHN-ANDREW MORRISON: (As Thought 4) You were born at 8:31 this morning, my love. Mom loves you. You turn 26 on the 26. I hope I'm the first one to call you. But even if I'm not, with the exception of our dear Heavenly Father, I am the one that loves you the most.
(Singing) I just like to remind you periodically, read your Bible, son. Don't put Jesus behind you. Periodically, read your Bible, son. One - honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days on the earth will be long. Two - be encouraged. Ye may feel helpless, but Jesus is strong. And three - and most importantly, most importantly, it's the reason I'm singing this song. Listen on me, now. Man is for woman and woman for man. The rest is confusion and not in God's plan. All of these Hollywood homosexuals waving gay flags all day and night, sticking their things up each other's buttholes, I'm telling you, son, that it just ain't right. It ain't right, it ain't right, it ain't right with God. It ain't right, it ain't right, it ain't right with me. And I just like to call up my baby boy and remind him of that periodically.
JOHN-ANDREW MORRISON AND JAQUEL SPIVEY: (As Thought 4 and Usher, singing) 'Cause I love you, and I don't want your soul to be wasted. It hurts me so bad sometimes I can taste it. Hell is real. Sinners burning, sinners churning in rivers of fire.
GROSS: So that was the song "Periodically" from the Broadway cast recording of "A Strange Loop," which was written by my guest, Michael R. Jackson. Both the book and the songs were written by him.
How were you introduced to Broadway shows? You grew up in Detroit, far away from Broadway. I don't know how many shows you got to see when you were coming of age.
JACKSON: I was introduced to Broadway probably really when I came to college at NYU, but I was aware of a lot of Broadway shows before that, but I didn't grow up watching the Tonys or anything like that. But I did grow up - like, I saw "West Side Story," the movie, at an early age, and I saw, like, "Little Shop Of Horrors," like, the movie. I think that was my main way of absorbing Broadway was the movie versions, although sometimes tours would come through Detroit, and my mother would take me to see them, and that was, like, our little thing that we did together. So I remember we went to Toronto when I was 12 or 13, and we saw the '94 revival of "Show Boat."
GROSS: Oh, that was great.
JACKSON: And I was blown away by it.
JACKSON: Like, to this day, it is, like, one of my favorite scores, and I just thought it was, like, a devastatingly beautiful show. And I loved the songs. And I think it planted a seed in me, even though I wasn't thinking about being a musical theater writer at that time, that musicals could be complex and epic and could really sort of do a lot, that they weren't just, like, you know, jazz hands.
GROSS: Right. So I know that you've often felt like you were standing outside of what was happening as - well, Usher feels that way, anyways - as, like, an outsider in any circle. When you started going to theater school at NYU Tisch School of the Arts - I mean, theater schools are filled with gay people. Did you feel like you'd found a home in that respect, both artistically and personally?
JACKSON: Yes and no because, remember; I started undergrad in 1999. And so while, yes, there was, you know, gay representation and that sort of thing, A, that gay representation was predominantly white and, B, it was still a weird sort of time in terms of gay acceptance. And I remember in my freshman year, like, I was trying to, like, walk this line of, like, people knowing I was gay but not knowing it and not knowing how open I could really be about it because I had come out of a situation in Detroit where, like, I really had to be secret about it. So I was out, certainly, when I was, you know, in college. But what that meant was, like, a very - I was, like, very conservative about it because I just didn't know how to rock it. And just the world was a different place at that time.
GROSS: Did you have to be secret about it in Detroit because your parents were church people, or were there other reasons, too?
JACKSON: Yeah. I mean, it was - just the whole, like, community. I mean, my parents knew I was gay by the time I got to college because I had sort of come out to them. But, like, it wasn't something that I was, like, out - I wasn't, like, out at church. And I wasn't really out at school except amongst, like, a sort of secret society of other Black gay boys, for the most part, and other, you know, queer kids who were around us. So it was, like, a strange sort of insider-outsider thing where, like, a bunch of us knew that the others were gay, but we also all were hiding it from, like, our community.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. Let me reintroduce you. My guest is Michael R. Jackson, and his musical, "A Strange Loop," won this year's Tony Awards for best musical and best book for a musical. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF LOS SUPER SEVEN'S "CALLE DIECISEIS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Michael R. Jackson. His musical, "A Strange Loop," won this year's Tonys for best musical and best book for a musical. It also won a Pulitzer Prize for drama. He wrote the book, as well as the music and lyrics. Jackson describes "A Strange Loop" as a musical about a young, Black, gay musical theater writer named Usher, who works as an usher at a Broadway show. And in the play, Usher is writing a musical about a young, Black, gay musical theater writer named Usher, who works at a Broadway show and is writing a musical about a young, Black, gay musical theater writer named Usher.
You came out to your parents when you were 17. About what year was that?
JACKSON: That was 1998.
GROSS: What was their first reaction?
JACKSON: They were not happy (laughter). They were shocked. They were scared. They were upset. They had, like, a really big reaction.
GROSS: How upsetting was that for you?
JACKSON: It was very upsetting ultimately. But in the moment, I was so consumed by all of their emotions that I couldn't even focus on what I felt or thought. And so I just sort of was sitting inside of this sort of feeling of, like, oh, my God, what have I done to, like, disrupt the family?
GROSS: In the show, Usher's father asks Usher - after the father finds out that Usher is gay, he says, son, are you attracted to me? And Usher says in response, I'm too Black, fat, ugly and effeminate to be the kind of man you'd be attracted to if you were attracted to men. Did your father actually ask you that? And if so, what did you say in response?
JACKSON: So my father did ask me if I was attracted to him, but he meant that in a kind of rhetorical - that was, like, a rhetorical move because his understanding of, like, homosexuality, which is that - I think - this is me sort of analyzing what that moment was - was that it doesn't make sense. Like, being attracted to men - like, when you say you're attracted to men, well, I'm a man. Do you know - like, it was just a rhetorical move in order to double down on the idea that being gay was not a good idea. The other stuff that's in the show that Usher says in response are, like, the things that I maybe wish that I could have said or that - I mean, that's, like, the thing that gets hard about the show. And that's another reason why, like, I never want to describe it as autobiographical because it's like - I wanted to experiment with the idea of, like, well, what if? Like, what are the things that Usher would feel that he wishes that he could say that would have some impact on the character of the father, that would be provocative, that would be, you know, sort of piercing the veil of the respectability that he sort of lives inside of?
GROSS: What did you say? What - how did you react?
JACKSON: I reacted with very little. Like, there was - like, that moment in my life, there was so little I could say. No one really was listening to me. And so I was grappling to find the words, to try to just get through the moments because I was so worried about what was going to happen to me. Like, I was like, am I going to get thrown out of the house? Like, I didn't know what was going to happen because all I understood at that moment was that being gay was so bad and that parents really didn't want their kids to be gay. And like, it just was a confusing time. And so I was just sort of grasping at whatever straw I could grasp at. So I didn't say very much other than, no, I'm not attracted to you.
GROSS: Were there consequences in your family after you came out? Did you get thrown out of the house?
GROSS: Was it difficult to communicate after that?
JACKSON: I mean, it was difficult to communicate. But the thing that was also true in the midst of all of that was that my parents loved me. They weren't necessarily expressing it in the most positive manner that (laughter) they could have expressed it in. But I never really felt like - I don't think I ever really thought I was going to get thrown out of the house or anything like that 'cause I had seen that happen with other gay kids around me. And that wasn't really the profile of my family. It just was a complicated, emotional family dynamic and one that - it was going to take us, like, a long time to sort of work through.
GROSS: Have your parents changed their mind about you being gay and about homosexuality in general?
JACKSON: So I don't - I could not tell you what my parents think about homosexuality. Like, I don't think that they have, like, one continuum of thought about that. But what I can tell you is that they are very proud of me and that they love me and that they root for me, you know, louder than anybody else. I can also tell you that some of the actions that they've taken over the years signaled to me that they are not supportive of a quite - of a lot of anti-gay ideas and that they have evolved in some way, even if it's a small way for them, and that we - you know, we are very close.
GROSS: What's your parents' reactions to the show and to how Usher's parents are portrayed?
JACKSON: They really love the show, and they're very impressed by it. They've seen it three times. My mom bought the libretto, and she's read it three times. And she'll read it, and then she'll listen to the cast album (laughter). And I think that their reactions to the characters of the parents are that there are some things - like, superficial elements of it - of the parents that they recognize in themselves. But other than that, they see the show as a fiction.
GROSS: So I want to get to another theme in "A Strange Loop," which is that the main character, Usher, thinks of himself as fat and therefore unlovable and unable to have, you know, a loving relationship or, you know, even any kind of sexual relationship. And I'm wondering if that - those feelings come from your life at all.
JACKSON: So I definitely came of age. I came out into what I always call the Black, gay, teenage storyline of my life. There were lots of Black, gay, teenage boys around me. They were sexually active. They were in relationships with each other. It was high drama. It was, like, all of that. And I was somewhat on the outside of that even then among, like, my peer group.
And so then when I came to New York where I had been told that I was going to have, like, the time of my life as a gay man and that I was going to have all this sex and that it was going to be just like a grand, old party, what I learned is that I was at the bottom of the food chain as far as that goes. And also, it was a very white-run kind of social scene, as much as I knew at that time. This is, like - we're talking the late '90s, early 2000s. And I had to really orient myself to what it meant to be a gay man in New York City at that time, as somebody who was short and fat and did not have any of the sort of physical attributes that would make one sort of popular in, you know, gay, male, sexual scene as I understood it or as I knew how to be.
Something that I've been thinking about recently is that I did not have any gay elders, and so there was no one to tell me what to do or where to go or how to do anything. And so every sort of experience that I had as a gay man in New York was by me making mistake after mistake after mistake, or like - or just fumbling around kind of in the dark, trying to figure out how to be, how to fit in. And that, you know, was very hard for me. And it did lead to quite a lot of negative self-talk because the messages that I was sort of getting from without was that I was not attractive enough, that I wasn't good enough, that I wasn't, you know, hot enough, that I wasn't all that. Like, it was just - it was all kind of just an exile in Gayville, which is how that song, in a strange way, came to be.
GROSS: Let's take another short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael R. Jackson. His musical, "A Strange Loop," won this year's Tonys for best musical and best book for a musical. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Michael R. Jackson. His musical, "A Strange Loop," won this year's Tonys for best musical and best book for a musical. It also won a Pulitzer Prize for drama. If you want to hear more of the songs, the cast recording is out.
How does it feel now to be in demand?
JACKSON: It feels busy.
JACKSON: It feels like I'm never home, like, ever.
GROSS: Well, I hope it's a good feeling, whatever being busy is to you.
JACKSON: Yeah. No, it's good. It's - you know, I'd spent so many years, like, working terrible day jobs and, like, wanting to, like, jump out of the window because I hated whatever I was doing at the moment that certainly I am enjoying, you know, being able to share my work with the world and getting people to listen to me and also getting to, you know, try to be as clear about my ideas as possible. You know, one reason why I even started working on the show was that I felt unseen, unheard and misunderstood. And as somebody whose, you know, trade is literally in language, I'm always interested in trying to make sure that I say what I mean and that I mean what I say.
GROSS: Since you worked as an usher at "The Lion King" when you started the process of writing "A Strange Loop" and the main character in "A Strange Loop" is an usher at "The Lion King," now that you have a hit show, do you talk to the ushers? And do you try to hire ushers for whom this will be a good theater experience, a good opportunity for them to kind of almost be an apprentice?
JACKSON: Well, I don't have anything to do with hiring the ushers. They're - they belong to a union, Local 306. They place them in the theaters they work at. But I do. When I go to the show, I do often talk to them. They're very nice people, but they also have a different situation than I had when I ushered because when you're a Disney usher, you have this long employee handbook, and you're considered a cast member. And you're - and the people who come to see the shows are guests. And they are - and it's almost like you're working at a theme park. Like, they want to create, like, an experience for the people coming to see the shows. And so they're just very strict about everything from grooming to how you can gesture to the restroom and all that sort of stuff. It's - like, it's pretty intense.
GROSS: How are you supposed to gesture to the restroom? What's the proper call?
JACKSON: Open-handed. You're never supposed to point.
JACKSON: Because I guess pointing is seen as rude. I don't know the reasoning behind it, but, like, they have a lot of rules that are about decorum and making sure that, you know, the guests feel as, like, welcome as possible. And I guess they've identified certain things that make people feel more or less welcome. I wish - I don't have, like, deep intel onto or into it other than that they're very strict about it.
GROSS: Michael R. Jackson, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much. And, again, congratulations on the Tonys and the Pulitzer and the success that "A Strange Loop" is having.
JACKSON: Thank you.
GROSS: Michael R. Jackson wrote the book and the songs for the Broadway musical "A Strange Loop." You can hear the music from the show on the new cast recording. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Bisha K. Ali, head writer of the Disney+ series "Ms. Marvel," the first show or movie in the Marvel Universe to star a Muslim hero. Its heroine, Kamala Khan, battles bad guys, sure. But she's also just trying to figure out how to be a teen living with her immigrant parents in Jersey City. Ali was born in England to Pakistani parents. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering today from Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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