Playwright, composer and lyricist Michael R. Jackson is one of a kind, and his electrifying musical, A Strange Loop, aligns, having taken a very strange, yet thrilling, road to Broadway. Grown from an idea conceived almost 20 years ago, the show follows, Usher, a big, Black, queer theater artist in his mid-20s living in New York City and following his dream of writing a Broadway musical. In the midst of this pursuit, his thoughts — realized by actual human beings — literally get in his way, prompting Usher to face them head-on and break the cycle of his self-doubt, family tensions and low self-esteem.

A Strange Loop had its first professional production off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizon in 2019, followed by an out-of-town engagement at Woolly Mammoth in Washington, DC, which concluded in January of this year. Along the way, the show also won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Now on Broadway, it recently earned 11 Tony Award nominations, the most out of all the Broadway productions that opened this season.

Jackson spoke candidly to Blavity, sharing his opinion on Black musical theater writers making it to Broadway, the quality of one’s work as an artist, theater criticism and more.

How does it feel to have ‘A Strange Loop’ on Broadway after the long journey the show has had?

It feels really exhilarating to have the show sort of manifest itself onto a Broadway stage, via its opening number [“Intermission Song”]. And it feels validating for me, working on the piece, taking my time with it and developing it over so many years, that the result has been it landing on Broadway.

Do you think your long journey was unique to you as a Black musical theater writer?

It’s hard to say. I guess on one level you could say yes. But on another level, the thing that I was doing as a Black theater artist was so unique — it wasn’t in any sort of commercial realm at all. While certainly there is a racial aspect to getting to Broadway, there’s also just the work itself, which is so challenging.

Speaking of the work, stories like ‘A Strange Loop’ are so important because they create more space for Black people to see themselves, and non-black people to see and understand another outside of their lived experience. It sounds like a positive all-around to me when I think about that. So, why do you think we don't see more stories by Black and POC creatives consistently on Broadway?

I think on one level, the economics of Broadway are very, very difficult. That’s something I certainly have learned going through this process and talking to my producer, who’s produced a lot of works. Even for the best of people, it’s very difficult. Blackness is a part of it because you’re trying to appeal to general audiences, but unless you have a celebrity in [the show] there’s no surefire anything.

Another sort of amazing thing about our show getting to Broadway is that this is an original piece. It’s not an adaptation of anything. It doesn’t have a popular IP underneath it. It’s a wholly original musical and I wrote the book, music and lyrics. So the fact that it made it to Broadway with that is amazing too.

And obviously, time only will tell if we have staying power, but typically you look at Broadway and either it’s got to be a jukebox musical or have celebrities in it, and that’s what will make it there — whether it’s a Black show or not. And so that’s why it’s a little bit hard for me to say that being a Black artist is a barrier to getting to Broadway because there are so many other economic issues also connected to that.

I’m not saying that there’s no racial component to these things — there definitely is — but I think it’s a little bit more complex than some people sometimes say.

Who you are has clearly influenced ‘A Strange Loop,’ but how important do you think an artist knowing and deeply embracing their personal identity is to the quality of their work?

There’s this inspiring quote I often share with people. I grew up on soap operas and there was this actress, Jane Wyman, who was on Falcon Crest. In 1986 she won a Soap Opera Digest Award and during her speech she said, “There is nothing in the entertainment world that can replace quality, and the quality is within you. You never settle. You never settle for anything but the best you know how to do. Never settle, just do your best.”

I really take that to heart because I think quality in your work is so paramount, and quality means taking your time and being thoughtful about what it is you’re doing. So, in terms of one’s personal identity, that can be a component of that. But who you are as an artist is also about what you put into your work — the time, effort, thought, rewriting, craft and the collaborations you participate in. All those things feed into [the quality]. So, it’ll never be identity alone.

In one part of the play, all the thoughts are giving Usher their two cents about what can make his play work — actually, what could make the play profitable and, in effect, him rich. Thought # 5 offers that they wish there was someone sexy in the musical because “f**kability is still the lifeblood of the theater” and “there shouldn’t be a limp d**k or a dry p***y in the house when your lead takes his clothes off.” I thought this was a great joke, but do you believe sex really sells?

You only have to turn on the television to see that’s true. I guess my question is, what is selling it? Like, sex sells, but who’s buying? Like, for what? Is it just eyeballs? Do people really care?

You can turn on, as I do, Rhyheim Shabazz. I pay for that. So yeah, I do think sex sells, but to me, there’s gotta be a reason behind it. I’m not really into gratuity because that’s not storytelling, it’s just pornography.

Thinking about the 40 other Broadway theaters currently in operation (there are 41 total, including the Lyceum, where ‘A Strange Loop’ is playing) and the historically challenging process of booking a Broadway theater, do you think it's time to build a new one?

Yeah, why not? I don’t have any strong feelings in particular about that, but if there could be more theaters where more shows can be done, I’m for that.

Do you think the new theater should have a specific mission? Maybe a nonprofit, like the National Theatre in London, or a theater that exclusively showcases work by people of color?

I feel like that conversation also needs to be part of one that’s about the specific development of Black work. That’s been a conversation that’s been happening for decades.

Something that I think is not really happening in this country in a way that I sort of bemoan and I wish it were, is that we don’t really have any conversations about what Black artists are doing, can do or want to be doing. As much as we say Blackness is not a monolith, we don’t act like it. And so I always get confused because if we have a specifically dedicated theater for Black artists or people of color, I don’t get the sense there would be a lot of diversity within the Blackness.

And there would also not really be a lot of conversations or criticism because everything always seems like it’s in the terms of what white audience members think or white critics think, and I just don’t understand that. I feel like there should be more development of Black artists who can develop their work to say and do whatever it is that they want to and not worry about what anybody thinks about it. And it should be able to be Black art for Black art’s sake — whether you’re a Black artist who has a very specific mission for a Black audience, or if you’re somebody, like me, who feels like more of a populist and wants everyone to see his work but still centers Blackness.

So, if there were a theater that could take on the sort of universe of Black art without curating it one way or the other, I would be down for that. But I feel like in the current environment, it all seems to skew in one direction or very narrow directions within Blackness.

You mentioned criticism within that answer. Do you think we need more Black theater critics?

I do think there should be more Black critics, but I also think there should be more critics overall who are not afraid to go outside the mainstream of thought or opinion.

I often read these reviews and I sense either fear, myopia or someone who’s so wrapped up in the present-moment-culture-zeitgeist that they’re not doing any critical thinking. They’re just sort of going along with whatever is the sort of popular Twitter ideology.

And so what I wish, whether the critic is Black or not, is that we have more of them who are more independent-minded and analytical in their thinking. That doesn’t mean I think they should all be coldhearted robots or anything, but I wish they could just actually analyze the work — think about how it’s made, the implications of what the artist is saying and whether they feel like what they’re saying is successful. Too often today, too many of them are just like, I feel this way and so this art doesn’t validate me and it’s bad, or, I feel this way and this art does validate me and so I like it, and it’s good and it’s a critic’s pick.

So, I do wish there were more Black critics, but I also just wish in general there were more critics who were a little more rigorous in their criticism.

What do you want audiences to leave the theater with after seeing the bigness and the Blackness and the queerness of ‘A Strange Loop,’ especially since, because of the current nature of Broadway, most of them will be white?

I want everyone to leave A Strange Loop thinking about themselves. Usher and the story he’s telling is so much about himself. I want him to inspire other people to see themselves through him because he’s exploring the self. Yes, he’s exploring his Black queer self in particular, but by him telling his own story with all the specificity and nuance of it, hopefully the audience can be touched by that and think about themselves.

Everybody has a strange loop. Everybody has their own thoughts in their mind, self-doubt, self-criticism and voices, you know? So, I would like people to really think about themselves as they leave the theater.

This interview has been edited and condensed.