A surprise hit in the US, A Strange Loop has now landed a huge London run. Adam Bloodworth speaks to the man who dreamed it up while working as an usher on Broadway
Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, becoming the second ever musical to win the accolade. The other show? A little-known show called Hamilton. On Broadway, it landed 11 Tonys, and has now opened for a long run at the Barbican Theatre. ‘Hype’ is the word to describe
A Strange Loop, arguably the most talked-about theatre opening this year. What’s garnered the attention? It’s a warts-and-all depiction of what it’s like to be “fat, black and gay,” according to writer Michael R. Jackson, who worked as an usher at The Lion King in New York 20 years ago and used his experiences to inform this story about finding your identity. A Strange Loop is a meta examination of a young writer who works as an usher, who’s writing a show about being a young writer who works as an usher.
Off the back of the show’s New York success, Jackson’s rise has been seismic. Celebrities helping to bankroll the piece include Jennifer Hudson, RuPaul and Alan Cumming. Four years on from the show’s off-Broadway premiere, Jackson’s new life is a significant departure from his former career as an usher. “My highest aspiration was only ever off Broadway,” says Jackson. “I didn’t imagine this show would make it to Broadway, so when that became a possibility, it was like this other, new dream came true.” What about a West End opening in one of the smartest theatres in London, one with a heritage of putting on buzzy musicals like Anything Goes? “I would not have believed you,” he says. “This was not on my bingo card.”
“I was just struck by seeing this fourth incarnation of the show and thinking of all the years it was just me in my apartment, toiling away in obscurity. To see that it’s travelled this far, it gives me this weird boost of confidence because sometimes I forget about the power of it. “I was reminded that there are people for whom this show will really resonate, which reminds me why I wrote it in the first place. It comes from me standing in the back of a theatre as an usher and seeing a huge audience embrace a piece of art and wanting to write something that a huge audience would embrace. Everything about A Strange Loop is a strange loop.”
Has he been enjoying cocktails and japes with RuPaul and Jennifer Hudson since he became famous? “The show has introduced me to a lot of interesting people,” he laughs. “But that doesn’t mean I immediately develop deep friendships with them. The entertainment business is still the entertainment business; people are very fickle and fleeting. In many ways my friend circles have gotten smaller over the last couple of years because I’ve had to really be discerning about who I put my trust in.”
I’ve had to rethink what my relationship to the word ‘queer’ is – queer also means straightA Strange Loop’s writer Michael R. Jackson
The show is an “exploration of identity, about the exploration of the idea of ‘I’ or ‘self’”. In the two decades since Jackson worked at The Lion King, his impression of what his own queer, black identity looks like has drastically changed. Whereas in the early noughties he romanticised the idea of partying with other gay people in places like New York’s queer destination Fire Island, these days his definition is more unusual.
“I’ve had to rethink what my relationship to the word ‘queer’ is – queer also means straight. My queer circle is not necessarily just people who are LGBTQIA+. It might mean people who have different views than I do, people who you would not expect I’d be friends with or in conversation with. It might not even be people who I agree with all the time. But there’s a queerness to that.
“There’s so much homogenous thinking and rigid political thought about how one has to be in this world and what’s acceptable and what are the ‘right’ cultural politics. I don’t subscribe to that. I’m very much a ‘live and let live’ kinda human and artist and citizen, and so I’ve had to expand my friend group and expand who I’m willing to communicate with. And so I would say I do have a queer circle, but that doesn’t just mean homosexual or trans.
“The thing I learned during the pandemic is I just cannot become part of the hive mind of online thinking. The thing about ‘cancel culture’ is it only is something we talk about because we live online. If you don’t live online you can’t ‘cancel’ anyone. If all of free speech is just about your Twitter account and that becomes how people understand who you are, that is part of the darkness in the world that I’ve been fighting to get away from. I don’t want a queer community that’s just based on that. I want it to be about actual people, dealing with each other and being honest and vulnerable with each other.”
A Strange Loop is one of the first big shows to really grapple with many of these issues, to examine them through one multi-faceted person, and to show how none of it is simple: “You can’t get away from identity politics, but at the core of A Strange Loop is a story about a human being.”
A Strange Loop plays at The Barbican until 9 September