Artist Interview: Michael R. Jackson
Photo by Zack Dezon
Tim Sanford: Let’s talk about your upbringing. You were raised in Detroit?
Michael R. Jackson: Yup. Detroit, Michigan.
And did you go through the whole school system?
Yeah, I went to Golightly Educational Center as a middle schooler from first grade to eighth grade. And then I went to Cass Technical High School for high school.
Were these public schools?
Mhmm. They were both magnet schools, though. So you had to take a test to get into them.
Do the parents in A Strange Loop bear any resemblance to your parents?
They do, but they are a mix of fact and fiction. They are a perception of reality from a young person perceiving his life.
And as a young person you developed an interest in the arts?
Yeah. I started playing piano when I was eight years old. I did some child acting from eight or 10 to 13. I was in a commercial as a little kid.
Local or national?
I think it was local. It’s on YouTube. It’s a black history-themed commercial with the basketball player Grant Hill. It was very exciting at the time. I was in a children’s theater group called Paper Bag Productions that did musicals. I also wrote poetry and fiction from a young age and I played piano at church. I took dance class for a year. I was very involved in the arts my whole childhood.
And were you getting affirmation from the world?
I think that everybody recognized that I had some sort of talent, especially once I started writing; that was the thing that I really was the most passionate about. As a child fiction writer, I got to go to the Michigan Youth Arts Festival every year of high school and I got published in a few literary magazines. I don’t think I knew what it would lead to because I didn’t know what being a professional writer actually looked like other than the Jackie Collins and Stephen King novels I was reading in middle school.
What were your family’s expectations about college?
You go to high school, you go to college, you get a job, you become a middle-class person in the world. Both my parents were college educated. My dad got his masters degree and was a police officer for 26 years. He retired and then he became a security consultant for General Motors. My mother worked accounting until she retired. And the expectation was that my brother and I would do well, that we would be able to be upstanding citizens and take care of ourselves.
Were they invested in the choices you were making?
My parents are a really interesting paradox, or contradiction, because on one hand they raised me and my brother to do things kind of by the book. But on the other hand, as I got more and more invested in the arts, they supported me every step of the way because they just knew it was something I liked to do. Even though as I kept doing it, it was like, “How are you going to make any money doing this?” But they still let me do it. For example, I had a scholarship to go to Michigan State, full ride. I didn’t want to go to Michigan State, I wanted to go to NYU. So my parents took out a gigantic loan so I could go all the way to New York City to study playwriting, which I hadn’t even ever done in high school. As opposed to — they could have just said, “No, we can’t afford this. You will go to Michigan State and be an English major for free.” But they knew that I loved writing and I wanted to go. So they made that possible for me. Which I never understood.
You went to NYU for playwriting?
But had never written a play?
No, because the way that program was structured at the time, they evaluate your general writing ability and you just submit a writing sample and then from there you spend that first year determining whether you’re going to pursue playwriting, television writing, or screenwriting. I don’t know if it’s like that anymore. And I don’t know if it was wise for them to do that. I mean I call those years the lost years anyway.
Because I don’t think that the undergrad playwriting program was particularly well-constructed at that time. And I also don’t think that it’s particularly wise for 18-year-olds to go to playwriting school. But that was something I did and if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have then gone to grad school for musical theater writing when I was a little bit older and was actually able to find my voice as an artist.
Were you unhappy going there as an undergrad?
When I was there, I was happy in the sense that for me, actually going to NYU and going to New York was actually more about getting away from my parents and getting away from the straight-laced, repressive, homophobic, whatever life of teenage years, and getting to be free. The thing that I didn’t know at the time was that there was a way that I could have structured that same sort of experience for myself without taking out $100,000 worth of loans.
So they were supportive but homophobic?
Yeah. I mean like a lot of parents who have gay children, it’s complicated. They love you and they also like don’t want you to be gay.
And yet they let you go to the big city?
They did. It’s a real contradiction. Complexity.
So coming out was—?
It was horrible?
And how old were you?
Oh, towards the end?
Yeah. I came out to myself when I was like 16. But I came out to them I was 17 and that was rough.
So you were in school?
I was a junior in high school.
And how was it in terms of your relationship with peers? Did you have friends you could be out to?
“I often felt like an outsider.”
Well that was the interesting thing. And I always say that I want to pitch a television show about this. I came out in the mid to late 1990s in Detroit and at that time, there were tons of black gay boys around me. I call it “the black gay teenage storyline.” There was lots of intrigue. Boys were having sex with each other, boys were breaking up and making up and sneaking out of the house in order to be with each other, going to clubs with fake IDs and the whole bit. I didn’t get to participate in that so much because my parents kept me on a pretty tight leash. So yes, there were friends I could be out to but even within that peer group, I often felt like an outsider, which is interesting.
Did your extended family know? Do you have uncles and aunts and cousins? Did they know?
I mean, I’m convinced at this point that everyone knew. But no one ever said anything. In terms of coming out, that was pretty localized to just my immediate family. So it was a very difficult period because, from my point of view, my coming out ended up being all about them and there wasn’t any space for what I felt or was going through. And so I responded by just retracting inward and doing everything I could do to avoid having a talk to them about it or having to really own the fact that I was gay for many, many, many, many, many, many years after that.
Who were your heroes, artistically or sociologically, growing up?
I was a big fan of Alice Walker. I love Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics. Those are to this day a big inspiration for me. I love The Catcher in the Rye. There’s this collection of poetry called In Search of Color Everywhere, which is a collection of black poets all the way from Phillis Wheatley to present day, which was at that time, the mid-nineties, I love Stephen King. I love Jackie Collins. Which sounds weird to mix those in there, but they’re both great storytellers in their own right. I was a big reader then.
How were the teachers at NYU? Undergrad?
I actually think the best teacher I had was in the first year of NYU. It was a class on craft that studied playwriting and screenwriting all together. His name was John Poglinco. He gave us a definition of a story that I have carried with me through the years that I use, no matter what the form: a character wants something. They’re presented with obstacles and they either achieve, abandon, or fail at their story purpose. And I found that to be a useful, simple way to think about what a story is. And it’s also the thing that lets me prioritize story over anything else. I’m not somebody who’s hugely obsessed with aesthetics or themes as much as, “Does this story make sense? Does it have a beginning, middle, and end?”
It sounds like you knew early on what you wanted to do.
Oh, no, no, no, not really. I mean, the thing that’s also true is that I grew up watching soap operas with my Great-Aunt Ruth from the age five all the way through my early 30s. I really came to New York City because I wanted to be the head writer for "One Life to Live." I wanted to write for soap opera more than anything. I did all my internships at soaps other than one semester at the Gersh Agency. I interned at "All My Children" in the production office. I interned at ABC Daytime for the network office. And after I graduated, I got a job working on a youth marketing focus group for ABC Daytime.
Was the world pretty integrated or—? In terms of race?
Well, I think at "All My Children" there were maybe two black people there and they weren’t in positions of power at all. I think that there was this guy, Terry Walker, who was the head of the music department and then there was an executive assistant named Sherri. Other than that, there were no black people at that time. That used to be a gig that playwrights would do sometimes. Like I remember Neal Bell did one for a while. Casey Childs was at "All My Children" for like 20 years. There was a black writer named Lynn Martin that we produced in Black Ink. She made a career in the soaps. Yeah. So that was my whole plan. And then it didn’t happen.
Why didn’t that happen?
“I loved musicals, but I didn’t think that anyone wrote them. I just thought they sprang out the ground.”
Well, because I became interested in plays and playwriting. And Craig Lucas was a big part of that because he came to my contemporary American playwrights class and I think one of the first things he told us was like, “The world is horrible and you’re all gonna die of cancer.” And I just fell in love with that candor. And so I started reading his plays. I read Stranger, I read The Dying Gaul. I read a collection of his short plays. And I just went crazy for how he wrote such dark, personal stories. And so I started pursuing him as a mentor over the years. And eventually I was his assistant on a musical that he wrote at Juilliard. So even though I was still doing other internships and stuff, I was becoming more and more interested in theater. I didn’t write musicals and so musicals at that time though I always loved them because I had been in them as a kid. My mom and I used to take little dates and we’d go and see shows. So I loved musicals, but I didn’t think that anyone wrote them. I just thought they sprang out the ground. So a teacher of mine asked if anybody was interested in musical theater writing because the NYU grad musical theatre writing program, where he also taught, was having an open house. And I had taken one of my electives there in musical theater history, so I went to it. And I was like, “Oh, this seems like a cool program.” Then I graduated, and thought, “What do I do with my life with a playwriting degree?” So I applied to a bunch of grad schools and NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing was the one I got into. And then once I got there, I was like, “Oh my God, I don’t know how to write lyrics or anything.” But over the course of the first year they teach you. And the form of musical theater and songwriting in particular, turned out to be the perfect container for writing I had been doing since middle school.
Were the musicals that you were exposed to and knew about, were they Broadway standards?
No. So something that I feel very fortunate about is that almost all of the musicals that I had encountered as a kid were musicals that were pushing the boundaries of form and/or content in some way. For example, my mom took me to Toronto to see Show Boat, the Hal Prince revival, when I was 12. So first we saw Phantom of the Opera on a Friday, then Show Boat on a Saturday. Phantom was — I was so confused by it. I liked the music, but as a story, I could not follow it. But Show Boat knocked me out in the way that it chronicled time and in the way it dealt with racial injustice with the character of Julie. I was so moved that that could be in a musical and I made my mom buy me the cast album. I wore it out. I listened to it every day. I know every song backwards and forwards. And then shortly after that we went to go see Raisin, the musical adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun, which a lot of people don’t know about, even though it won a Tony in 1974 for Best Musical. It has some of the best songwriting you will ever hear in any musical anywhere. And then shortly after that, a friend of our family shared the movie, West Side Story with me, which I had always heard about, but I didn’t know anything about it and I watched it and I lost my mind. I thought it was like the best thing ever. Then going to college and getting exposed to Bill Finn’s work and then being exposed to A Chorus Line…
How were you being exposed to them?
A friend of mine in college shared In Trousers with me, which to this day is my favorite thing Bill has ever done, even though he hates it.
Why did Bill hate—?
“You can do anything in a musical. It doesn't have to be paint by numbers.”
Because he’s crazy. That’s fine. I mean I understand that it’s a weird piece. A lot of things about it are not fully expressed, but the raw artistic and aesthetic ambitions of it are really exciting. Also, it’s sort of nakedly personal. It is. Although that wasn’t the thing that I immediately identified with. I just thought that the structures, the songwriting structures that he was working with were so exciting and the sonic palette he was using and the harmonic 5 progressions of the voices were so exciting to me. Like listening to Mary Testa and Allison Frazier and Chip Zien — I was so excited. It didn’t sound like cookie-cutter anything. It was like, “Oh, you can do anything in a musical. It doesn’t have to be paint by numbers.”
Did you have any interactions with Kirsten Childs?
Not when I was there. After I graduated NYU Grad, I asked her for permission to watch Bubbly at the Lincoln Center archives. And it blew my mind.
That’s quite a heterogeneous mix of writers.
And then there’s the one that I haven’t mentioned that’s the biggest influence of all of them, which is Tori Amos.
In the context of musical theater writing?
I would say so because if you’re talking about personal writing, she’s the real reason that I was writing personally because I encountered her music, right at the point when I was starting to come out. And her music is so about tearing open the soul and talking about religion and sexuality and asking deep personal questions. And so when I was first starting to try to write songs in high school but didn’t know how to write lyrics, I was imitating her pretty solely. And that period of imitation was the beginning of my understanding how to write. So I carry her as a musical and lyrical influence, along with people like Joni Mitchell and then Liz Phair who I encountered when I was in college. All three of those were the big influences on how I was writing songs that then would end up in A Strange Loop.
So were you trying to learn how to write songs just for yourself?
I was playing songs at church because I had to play for the choir. But then I was doing lots of improv-ing and trying to make up my own little tunes because I was writing poetry and I thought that songs were just poetry put to music.
Were you getting better musically?
“There was this very interesting storm of me developing my voice in a real way that wasn't just a hobby.”
I was developing a sense of adventure in music, melodically and harmonically. But also in terms of the lyrical content, I took creative writing as my elective all four years of high school. And our school was involved in this program called Inside Out that brought professional writers into school so that students could write as a vocation and not just a hobby. One of the writers that came into the program was this guy named Peter Markus and Peter also taught at Interlochen and he did a writing workshop out of his house in downtown Detroit. So my parents paid for me to go take his workshop. And in his workshop, he was the one who encouraged me to stop writing Maya Angelou knockoff poems and start being a little bit more dangerous with the writing I was doing, which was happening at the same time I was coming out and listening to Tori. So there was this very interesting storm of me developing my voice in a real way that wasn’t just a hobby that was giving birth to the steps that I would take later even though I didn’t know that that’s what was happening.
But you kept your piano going?
I did. I just was playing for myself and when I was at home, my dad always would make me play him like Temptations songs on the piano and stuff. I was just always playing and unconsciously sort of training myself to be a composer.
So you had picked up the chord structures yourself.
Yeah, I did it all by mostly by ear. I took a little bit of classical piano.
Let’s jump ahead to NYU. You went there as a lyricist, right? Did you have an “aha” moment?
Yes. At the end of my first semester, our teacher said, “If you’re a lyricist who’s never written any music and want to try it, or if you’re a composer and want to try writing lyrics, go for it.” So since I kind of had some sense of form by then, the 6 musical impulses had somewhere to go. So the song I wrote was “Memory Song” and it was the first song I ever had written. And it was just a stand-alone song for me.
What was the story you told about the refrain?
“He reminded me a lot of black gay boys that I knew from back home who were always struggling to reconcile their religious and family situations with their sexuality.”
A friend of mine from NYU, Darius Smith, who was originally supposed to be the orchestrator for A Strange Loop before he passed away, performed a song that he had written with a collaborator for one of our assignments in school. It was all about a gay black man waking up in bed next to someone and feeling ashamed and crying out to God for forgiveness. And watching him perform that song in class, he reminded me of a lot of black gay boys that I knew from back home who were always struggling to reconcile their religious and family situations with their sexuality. And so I just picked up my notebook and I wrote “All these black gay boys I know who chose to go on back to the Lord.” Then months later the teacher gave us that assignment and I was flipping through my notebook and I found that phrase and decided to try setting it to music.
Talk about how it became a show. What were the first steps?
So after the lost years at NYU Undergrad, I did not know what I was going to do with my life. I moved out to a little old lady’s house in Jamaica, Queens. And I started writing this thinly veiled monologue called “Why I Can’t Get Work.” It was all about this young black gay man walking around New York City, unsure of where he fit, thinking about his sexuality, troubles with his parents, his place in the world politically. And it ended up being performed at this youth arts festival called Rebel Verses which is now done at the Vineyard every year. And during that same period I started going to NYU Grad and started writing music. And Maria Goyanes who was then an artistic associate at The Public, directed a short play at that same festival the next year. And she had heard some of my songs, she had read the monologue and we started to think about whether there was a way that we could put them together because thematically there was overlap. And so from there I got this opportunity to perform at Ars Nova and so I did the one-man show version of it that went from being called “Why I Can’t Get Work” to “Fast Food Town,” which was a name of a song I had written. It’s a dead trunk song now. Probably 20 people came and after that was over, I decided I did not want this show to be a one-man show. I wanted it to be a proper if unconventional musical. So then Maria and I went to the Playwright’s Realm, which was just starting at that time. And John Diaz was still there at that point. And then we started developing the book of it. And that was right around that time when the title changed into A Strange Loop because I had this whole narrative in the piece about the character Usher, pursuing Liz Phair and trying to get the rights to her music so that he could write these mash-ups that would culminate in her song “Strange Loop.” And simultaneously in real life I was literally trying to get the rights to do that. And then that led to her telling me, “No, you cannot do that and you have to write your own songs,” which is what I wanted to have happen in the piece in the first place. Then Maria got too busy and I did a reading at the Lark that May Adrales directed. And then she got too busy. So then I approached Stephen Brackett like a year later and asked him if he would direct a reading of it at NYU Grad. Then he read the script and he said, “Hey, have you ever thought about casting this with all black and queer folks?” Because up until that point, it had been Usher as the protagonist and I cast it across race and gender. And when he suggested that it opened up all these possibilities for what it could be and things that were already in the piece.
Stephen says that you already had Mom played by a black, queer man — John-Andrew Morrison has been with it almost from the beginning — so it was a natural next step.
That’s right. So I started writing toward that concept and that’s where the Thoughts began to emerge as that identity. And then we did a reading and NYU, it was kind of a mess, but it was interesting to write for that concept. Then a couple of years later, Shakina Nayfack approached me when she was starting the Musical Theatre Factory and invited me to join a writer’s group. And I worked on it with them for awhile and then we did a reading. And that went really well. Most of the people who are in the cast today were in that reading. And then I think that’s right around the time Kent Nicholson became aware of the piece. And I worked on it at the Goodspeed then at 54 Below and after that, said it was time to come here to do a reading. So we did that reading on November 11, 2016, four days after Trump was elected, which was very exciting for lots of reasons. And then from there, Barbara Whitman got involved and Michael Walkup and Page 73. And we did another reading nine months later. And then that’s when y’all said y’all wanted to do it.
Sounds like a straight line to me.
Super straight line.
Let’s get back to the show itself. When did you come across Douglas Hofstadter?
So what happened with that was that once the Liz Phair narrative was really, really embedded in the piece and I knew that I wanted to end with the song, “Strange Loop,” one day I was like, “I don’t know what ‘strange loop’ actually means, but I love that song on her album.” So I thought I’d Google it to see if it referred to something meaningful. When I Googled it, the thing that came up was Douglas Hofstadter’s term “a strange loop.” And when I read that it was all about self-reference, I screamed because the piece itself was about self-reference though that’s not what I was thinking of it as formally. So it was this weird thing where Liz Phair, who I was using to help write about self-reference led me to Douglas Hofstadter who had a whole theory about self-reference, which gave me a container for a piece that was inherently about self-reference. So it was like a “strange loop” in and of itself.
In your Playwright’s Perspective, you also cited the W.E.B. DuBois quote about double consciousness.
“One thing that has always been a part of this musical is its sexual candor.”
Yeah. So like concurrently to all of this, I’m black. So all of the experiences of being a black person in the world — in the theater, in a family, in sexual relationships, in whatever sort of community I might happen to be in — that’s like part of my being. It’s part of my writing. And so I think that the DuBois quote is great because as a black person living in this white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy, you are constantly translating. So I’ve always been interested in examining how race and blackness in particular is translated through multiple identities. One thing that has always been part of this musical is its sexual candor. It enters territory that musicals haven’t always been comfortable in. When Bill Finn wrote a musical about homosexuals, that created a sensation. Yeah. But even in that, he has a whole song that’s basically about blow jobs, “Whizzer Going Down,” but they’re clapping and the clapping is the blow jobs. It’s something that in 1979 it makes sense because people were not going to be that open. So it’s all hidden.
For you it’s not.
I mean I came of age in a different era and the women who most inspired me musically were writing very explicitly about sexuality: both Tori and Liz Phair. And so I was like, “Oh, you can actually write about these things very nakedly.” So how interesting would it be for me as a black gay man to take a page out of those playbooks given that there’s not really — at least to my knowledge at that time… There were people like Marlon Riggs in filmmaking in the eighties and nineties, but certainly not in musical theater. No one was exposing anything about black sexuality or black queer sexuality in particular. And so I wanted to see if I could do that. Like, what does that actually look like? Just do it and see what it sounds like and what it feels like on a stage.
One aspect of your story that really feels loaded is that when Usher comes to New York, he encounters racism within the gay community, which seems like fresh territory to me.
So Usher comes to New York City and he’s a gay man looking for affection and love and sexual expression, but the way that the gay social scene is structured, it’s hard for someone who lives in his body to really find that. And part of the reasons for that is because of what I affectionately or shadily call the white Gay-triarchy. And that’s a very powerful thing when you’re a black body looking for love and all you seem to see and hear is “whites only” even though supposedly gay men are also an oppressed group, which they are. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t also oppress others who are also gay or queer or trans but not white. So that was part of my experience as a young gay man in in the city, particularly because I had come from a place where it was so many black gay people around. But even in my all black gay context, I still was a little bit on the outside. So I came from being kind of an outsider to being really an outsider but also having to like adapt to what it meant to try to be a part of a gay community in a place where you were going to be kept out because you were black or because you were fat. At first I dealt with it by trying to do whatever white gay men wanted me to do. And then I started to get angry and then I started wanting to kill white gay men and then I like was like, “You know what? All of this is making me very, very unhappy and I don’t want to wrap up my sense of self in all these other people. And in fact what I actually want is to be with black men, which is what I wanted when I was in high school but thought I was on the outside of. So the loop continues. But I had to get to a certain point where I understood that that’s what was happening. But it took me a very long time because I didn’t have any mentors to encourage me or to tell me not to put all of my sense of belonging in other people. And because of the homophobia from my childhood, I didn’t feel strong, I didn’t feel confident about asserting my identity and my sense of self to believe that I was worth anything to anyone. So my twenties were quite difficult. And I had friends, but I didn’t have friends who I felt could really help me with what my actual problems were. And that was partly because it was hard to even articulate what my problems were and so I had to bumble along and figure it out on my own.
Talk about how the strange loop concept relates to that journey to emotional self-knowledge. Both the Hofstadter quote and the DuBois quote describe the loop of seeing yourself through the eyes of others. So when it’s reflections of reflections, mirrors of mirrors, how do you begin to see yourself with your own eyes?
“It just took living more life and experiencing more things and seeing how I and he sort of ticked to really be able to write his story.”
There’s this great quote by Neil Gaiman in his Sandman comic books where there’s a character named Morpheus who is about to essentially kill himself in order to save his kingdom. And he’s talking to his pet raven and he’s holding an emerald and he’s saying something to the effect that it’s easy to look at a jewel and think that because each facet has its own glint of light, that the facet is the jewel, but the facet is not the jewel. That’s how I would respond to your question. If you’re like looking at your own experience, sometimes you can only see the little piece of it, but you can’t see that there’s a whole jewel. I started off writing this piece as a young gay black man trying to understand who he was in real time. But I couldn’t really do that until I was able to see the whole jewel of him. And at the time I could only see the one facet. And so like it just took living more life and experiencing more things and seeing how I and he sort of ticked to really be able to write his story because then I was able to step back and go, “Oh, that’s what you’re about!” Usher didn’t even know that he hated himself or I didn’t know that I hated myself. I didn’t know that that’s what it was. And that, in fact, there was nothing wrong with me. And once you know that there is nothing wrong with you, you can actually move forward, albeit with a lot of the same problems, but not from the point of view that there is something wrong with you.
Talk about the inner white girl. That’s a motif that you’ve worked on significantly to clarify what you’re after.
Yeah. As a black person, as a black creative, and a black queer person, there are so many stereotypes about what we can do and be and so many limitations to what we do and can be. And if you challenge any of those limitations, you often are called an Uncle Tom or white-acting or whatever, when in fact all that I have wanted or what Usher has wanted is to just be able to fully express ourselves in whatever complex ways we choose. But because we live in an imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy, there’s constant policing of your self-expression and your thinking and of what you want for yourself and your life. And so the inner white girl is just this thing that has lived inside of me and Usher where there are these white rocker women who really just let you know everything that’s going on with them. And they’re not necessarily facing consequences for that. Whereas if you’re a black person, often there is this feeling like if you do that, you’re going to be made to pay the consequences for it. And so that was even part of my reason for wanting to write the song was to just to articulate that as a fact and in articulating that as a fact, it frees Usher up to do whatever it is that he wants and to express however he wants and to share secrets and to push envelopes and cross boundaries. I’m very much about creating as much expansiveness for black identity as possible while at the same time respecting it.
One recurring theme of self-policing pertains to the “N-Word.” In “Intermission Song,” one of the thoughts is going to rhyme, “Lacking both in craft and vigor/ Cause he’s just a fucking nig—” and he gets cut off. Then later in the Guardians of Musical theater scene, one of the thoughts says, “You can’t say ‘N.’ There are white people watching. There are black people watching.” It’s interesting because I remember after a performance of Bella, I was standing with Kirsten in the audience and a very distinguished looking black gentleman came up to her and very respectfully asked, “I just need to ask you, why did you feel the need to have that word in your play?” And I hadn’t really appreciated until that moment that there’s real controversy around the subject.
“I wanted to create an infectious song moment that gave listeners a punishment and a reward.”
This argument has been going on since the word was created by white people. Whether you can say it or can’t say it or who should say it or why I should say. And my thing about it is that I respect people who say, I won’t say it or I don’t like it, but I won’t be policed by them because to me, I feel like I will say it until there’s no need to say it. It’s a very powerful word and it’s a word that draws a line in the sand. I feel like I mostly hear arguments against using it from black people who think if we just stopped saying it, then we’ll show white people who’s boss or prove that we respect ourselves or whatever, but I’m like, “No, that actually isn’t true.” As Toni Morrison says of racist white people, “there will always be one more thing.” There’s a wrinkle when you’re talking musicals. The thing that inevitably happens with musicals is the songs get inside you and then you start bursting into song walking down the hall. Including the songs with taboo lyrics. I’m not sure if the Hair soundtrack were released today if I would feel ok to sing along to “Colored Spade.” But isn’t the thing about our favorite musicals is that we always memorize the whole score and sing along with it? What is inhabiting us? Is it the composer? The character? The story? I think art is about making the intangible tangible and about creating a common language between disparate experiences. It is none of my business what lyrics people sing along with at home. I believe strongly that everyone has to take responsibility for their own choices including whether to clap along to “AIDS is God’s Punishment” or not. That song was written specifically because I had gone to see the 2013 Tyler Perry film Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor. In the film two black women are essentially “cursed” with AIDS for exercising free sexuality. In the movie theater, there were audience members who nodded along and said, “Yup, that’s what she gets.” And I was struck by the dissonance of that and how that kind of thinking was completely consonant with the homophobia I had been raised with/under. I wanted to create an infectious song moment that gave listeners a punishment and a reward (not necessarily in that order). I think our favorite musicals give us a framework for thinking about real life, which is why I love the form so much.
I have one more question. The name “Usher” has several associations. First, there’s his job. Later you make an association with the pop singer. Was that a coincidence? You’ve talked about sharing your name with a famous person. I guess it’s just one of the mini strange loops within the strange loop.
When it started out as a monologue he was not an usher. Then one day, I was ushering at the New Amsterdam Theatre and seating had just begun on the mezzanine and this older woman at the bottom of the stairs yelled up, “Usher, Usher!” And I just remember clocking that and being like, “That’s crazy! She’s yelling for an usher like a taxi cab!” And so that became the beginning of the main theme for “Intermission Song.” And then gradually I realized that could be the character’s name too. And then later I realized, “Oh, he has a famous name and I have a famous name and this character is loosely based on my perception of my experience. But once I realized that, I thought it was just too good not to make that connection and to create another loop.
Well, and the other thing that is perfect about it is that he’s guiding us on his journey, kind of like Virgil guiding Aeneas in The Aeniad. He takes us on a journey into the self.