Detroit native Michael R. Jackson wins Pulitzer for meta-musical about a queer black playwright
Detroit native and Cass Technical High School alum Michael R. Jackson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize this year for his off-Broadway musical A Strange Loop. Jackson's show is a kind of meta-musical whose central character is writing a musical himself. It’s an effervescent mix of traditional Broadway songs with gospel, R&B, and a heavy dose of Liz Phair. It is also the first musical to win the Pulitzer without making it to Broadway.
The show comes out of the gate with the reminder that as much as queer history is tied up in Broadway, there are certain kinds of queerness—black queerness, for example—that have not had the same treatment. It follows the story of Disney Usher, a black, queer writer, as he tries to put together an original musical. Though he and Usher share several similarities, including having “famous names,” Jackson says A Strange Loop is more “self-referential” than autobiographical.
"Early on I decided I needed to give myself some distance from being like, 'This is a story about my life,' because I knew that it wasn't totally that. It was like a perception of life,” Jackson said.
While Usher is the focal point of the production, Jackson said the other six cast members are just as critical to understanding his character. They act as a sort of Greek chorus, representing Usher’s thoughts—from his desires, to his self-hatred, to his sense of humor.
"It's always important to me to stress that the show is about these seven queer black bodies on stage,” Jackson said. “[Usher] was just one of many colors in trying to tell this story about selfhood and black queer selfhood."
When he started writing A Strange Loop, Jackson says he had no faith that it would ever be produced as a show. That attitude meant that he wasn't constrained by whether or not it would be marketable or appeal to a broad audience.
“I just was like, 'Well since it'll never be produced, I can just write it however I want. I can be as honest, I can be as daring, and I should be as truthful as possible,'” Jackson said. “And so I felt like when I got the Pulitzer, the culture had responded to the truthfulness of the piece, which I think all theater should celebrate anyway.”
Though A Strange Loop focuses on black, queer identity, Jackson says that its specificity also contains universality. However, in line with the show’s “say what you mean, mean what you say” ethos, Jackson urges his audience to form their own opinions about it.
“You don't have to like it. That's something that's really important thing for me,” Jackson said. “I don't think that everyone has to like everything, and you should have a choice to come to it on your own terms and meet it wherever you are.”
Due to the COVID-19 shutdown, it will be some time before you can catch A Strange Loop on stage. Until then, you can stream the cast recording on Spotify—though we should mention it is not appropriate for everyone and contains explicit language and references to sex.
Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Lia Baldori.