Teresa Castracane/Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in association with Playwrights Horizons and Page 73 Productions
When code switch has covered the theater industry, it’s often to expose some of the uncomfortable racial dynamics in the room – whether it’s the unease of watching Hamilton with a predominantly white audience, the controversies surrounding Asian representation in Miss Saigon, or the complexities teaching The Merchant of Venice in schools. But we don’t usually sing the praises of drama or talk about how the art form can make us think about race in exciting and unique ways.
So let me mix things up a bit when I say this: I absolutely love A strange loop, a Michael R. Jackson musical that opened on Broadway in late April. The show has already caused a stir, both inside and outside the theater world. It was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama before going to Broadway. And it’s now up for 11 awards at the 75th Annual Tony Awards this Sunday.
But A strange loop also innovates by re-enacting and subverting popular representations of darkness.
The show follows Usher, a black gay man who attempts to write a musical about a black gay man. A set of six represent his “Thoughts” on stage, embodying disgust, self-pity and societal expectations of how to conform to acceptable versions of blackness and homosexuality.
These thoughts lead Usher to write like other black playwrights, especially the famous Tyler Perry. For example, sometimes the Pansies will take the form of Usher’s mother, urging Usher to write “a nice, clean, Tyler Perry-style gospel piece for your parents.” Other times, like in the song “Tyler Perry Writes Real Life,” they take the form of Harriet Tubman and Zora Neale Hurston, urging Usher not to write like a white person, and take his job. seriously.
I wanted to know more about how A strange loop fits into the larger landscape of black theatre. So I called Rashida Z. Shaw McMahon, associate professor of English at Wesleyan University and author of The black circuit: race, performance and spectators in popular black theater. (Full disclosure – she was also my college adviser.) Her book traces the creation of the “Chitlin Circuit”, a genre of black theater that she says A strange loop reinvents and subverts. I sat down with McMahon to discuss the importance of A strange loop on Broadway, how the musical portrays Tyler Perry and what it means to write “authentic” portrayals of black life. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
In an NPR interview, Michael R. Jackson was asked to describe his musical, and he said, “A strange loop is a major Black and queer-ass American Broadway show. It’s part of a tradition, but it’s also opening the door to new traditions. It’s a loop within a loop. What traditions do you think this show is part of?
There’s a current tradition that I think is present on Broadway right now that many viewers will tap into. This piece is in conversation with Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris, in terms of expressing a queer black narrative, and also a piece that centers black experiences that are intertwined with sexuality, gender, identity and life. ‘story.
I was also struck by the parallels I found between this play and Adrienne Kennedy’s 1960s play A Negro’s Funnyhouse. In Kennedy’s play, she and her different selves have these meta-conversations, which really struck me as part of Jackson’s exploration in his musical – the way we, as readers or viewers at theater, let’s really witness a conversation of Usher with his many selves.
There is also, of course, the musical component – the presentation of black bodies on stage singing, dancing, expressing joy, expressing melancholy. I think there’s a huge range of subgenres within the category of musicals that black artists have been practicing, embodying, and engaging with for many, many decades.
How would you define the ‘Chitlin Circuit’ or the ‘Black Circuit’ for those who don’t know what it is?
These are events that take place in non-traditional venues that sometimes host thousands of spectators at a time and are very lively. Sometimes the audience responds to the performers on stage. These productions often tour for a year or two and arrive in a new city each weekend. And that’s something that has caught on and galvanized a lot of black viewers in a way that we haven’t seen in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Thematically, a Chitlin Circuit show is usually a musical that centers the lives of black people. It has popular cultural references. He has a sense of humour. The moral is part of the story arc. But these characters also have flaws and vices, and they sing songs and express universal life experiences — and in common with the kinds of experiences often documented in black American urban spaces. There’s a way their appeal is that they speak, in a sense, to the choir.
And it’s not a question of “How will this story end?” You already know, upon entering, that the protagonist will find God and have a sense of salvation. But he watches the unfolding of events.
If anyone familiar with Chitlin Circuit Theater has seen A strange loopwhat would they think of the musical?
We often come to theater productions looking for an entry point. I don’t want to be presumptuous, but there may be some audience members in this category that align with Usher’s mother. Michael R. Jackson wrote in a space for this audience to enter. And I hope that through the production, sitting through the production and really having to deal with what Usher is talking about, expressing the pain and the trauma and the longing and the desire to be seen and to be whole – hopefully there are Brechtian messages and some kind of Oprah Winfrey “aha” moment that happens, which makes this audience member who came in as “Mama” come out as thinking, “Well, you know, I never thought of it that way.”
There’s hope for that because, you know, Michael R. Jackson teaches everything from U.S. We don’t all walk into the theater as black, fat, gay, cisgender men. We all learn, through this fictional character, what this world is like. I think there’s a hope that I have with any theater that you come away with a new point of reference and a new state of mind – partly because of the form. You can let yourself be carried away by the music. You can get carried away by humor. You can get carried away by aesthetics. The form can lend itself to people who think more critically and deeply about their own subject position, and their own, perhaps stereotypical ways of thinking about black queer bodies.
In your book, you recognize that stereotyping is kind of a fundamental part of the Chitlin circuit. A strange loop is full of stereotypes of all sorts of things imaginable – including the very famous writer and director Tyler Perry. What does it mean for Michael R. Jackson to repackage and re-present Tyler Perry in this musical? On the one hand, Jackson gives voice to decades-old critiques of Perry’s work. On the other hand, in songs like “Tyler Perry Writes Real Life,” Usher’s “Thoughts” condemns Usher for being so dismissive of Perry.
Michael R. Jackson writing Tyler Perry in his musical, and Michael R. Jackson winning the Pulitzer Prize for said musical, is proof that Tyler Perry pulled it off — if we didn’t already have the proof. It is, in fact, a confirmation of how many hoops Tyler Perry himself has had to jump. The circle is now complete in many ways, isn’t it?
The way Tyler Perry enters the frame is humorous, but also, I think, rather critical, because at this point in the zeitgeist there is an understanding of some of Tyler Perry’s work as unscholarly. What I think Michael R. Jackson criticizes and kind of repels – even as Usher’s mother tries to get Usher to write like Tyler Perry – is that Tyler Perry would never write like Usher. Tyler Perry would never write Usher in the frame, being black and queer and a man-loving cisgender man. This is not part of the “real life of Tyler Perry”.
What does this mean for A strange loop being on Broadway, and what new meanings emerge from the show now that it is?
I was struck by a moment in the musical where Usher says, “His darkness doesn’t look blue in the moonlight.” For those who know, this is a reference to Tarell Alvin McCraney and Barry Jenkins’ movie Moonlight. I think that A strange loop fact now that it’s on Broadway teaches us that there are other bodies and stories that encapsulate black queerness, whether in an American context, a dramatic context, a cinematic context. As much as Tyler Perry is a more present figure in the piece, Jackson also inserted Tarell Alvin McCraney. And it is also a criticism.
I think of what wasn’t in it Moonlight. What body types weren’t in this movie? I think it’s important to recognize that it’s not just rejection of Perry or an idea of homophobia within black American communities. It’s also a “Hey, how about me? Look here at the black queer bodies that haven’t yet been part of mainstream narratives about black queer life.”
I watch a lot of popular culture that also involves black and gay bodies and trans bodies. I think Michael R. Jackson, in this drama production, speaks on behalf of a segment of the LGBTQ community that is not often the viewpoint or receiver of love, interest, or curiosity . And so, I think there’s a larger calculus framework that I think he’s trying to shake, and he shook just by the fact that this piece has traveled so far.