Menu

Playwrights' Perspectives

Playwright’s Perspective: A Strange Loop

By Michael R. Jackson, Playwright
February 28, 2019

My name is Michael Jackson. That means my entire life has been overshadowed by the notoriety and infamy of a now-dead pop star. When I’m meeting someone for the first time, my uniquely famous name strips me of an identity that is solely my own.  

In the last year, I have been mistaken for or identified as playwright-director Robert O’Hara to my face no less than six times. It’s become a running gag where I am constantly correcting theater people with “actually, I’m not Robert.” But before anyone jumps to any conclusions, some of these people were black so it’s more complicated than a racist white person thinking “they all look the same.” But in either case, my seeming resemblance to another black man strips me of an identity that is solely my own.    

Over the last few years, I have been meditating on the tendency of theater critics to compare black playwrights’ plays to each other without making a substantive case for their comparisons. In most instances, these comparisons will present themselves in the form of critics anointing one black writer’s work as the gold standard while other black writers find themselves cast as lesser or failed satellites orbiting around them depending on how successful or unsuccessful the critics decide their plays are. I raise this issue not to scold anyone but to grapple in good faith with the extent to which the stories, questions, and obsessions black writers have might truly appear to be the same to this largely white gaze, stripping black writers of identities that are solely our own. 

W.E.B. DuBois coined the term “double consciousness” to describe the uniquely African-American experience of “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” But what is a “self” anyway? Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter coined the term “a strange loop” to theorize the self as merely a collection of meaningless symbols mirroring back on their own essences in repetition until death. He further theorized that a human being is the organism with the greatest capacity to perceive itself perceiving itself perceiving itself ad infinitum.

“What is a ‘self’ anyway?”

A Strange Loop is not formally autobiographical but I did begin writing it as a monologue in my early 20s when I experienced myself as nothing more than a mass of undesirable, fat, black queerness. I was functionally miserable, relentlessly self-critical and very lonely. It was like I was on the outside of my body looking in and on the inside of my body scratching to get out. Self-hatred is a strange loop too.

When I think back on these “dark café days,” I imagine two killer lines from poems by Emily Dickinson and Nikki Giovanni in a kind of vaudeville act in my head that starts with Emily warmly introducing herself to Nikki with “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” And then Nikki clapping back at her with “I ain’t shit. You must be lower than that to care.” In my estimation, this negative feedback loop perfectly describes where we find Usher, the protagonist of A Strange Loop with his famous name that’s also the name of the occupation he’s working while he, like me, tries to pen a musical with a plot that requires us to ask ourselves questions like “Who is Usher? And who am/what is ‘I’? Whose gaze do I honor? Does it matter? Do I matter? Do black “I’s” matter? Am I their negro? Am I not their negro? Or am I Michael Jackson? And if I am, do I finally get to claim an identity that is solely my own? Who is Usher? And who am/what is ‘I’? Whose gaze do I honor? Does it matter? Do I matter? Do black “I’s” matter? Am I their negro? Am I not their negro? Or am I Michael Jackson? And if I am, do I finally get to claim an identity that is solely my own? Who is Usher? And who am/what is ‘I’? Whose gaze do I honor? Does it matter? Do I matter? Do black “I’s” matter? Am I their negro? Am I not their negro? Or am I Michael Jackson? And if I am, do I finally get to claim an identity that is solely my own?