Last month, when Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop earned unanimous praise upon opening at Playwrights Horizons, it was a pivotal moment for me as a spectator. As someone who is also a Black, gay, and a musical theatre writer, I saw myself and my story onstage for the first time. I guffawed, clapped my hands, snapped along, celebrated the pageantry of Black excellence, and even teared up a bit during the play’s climax.
For the first time I didn’t have to undertake the mental gymnastics all marginalized people are basically required to do once they enter the theatre; to empathize with the white, often male protagonist as default. Not to mention, there was additional apprehension. Any time I saw a story centered on LGBTQ characters, I could usually predict what I was getting myself into: either comedic NutraSweet schmaltz with heart, or a maudlin tragedy where happy endings are laughable and everyone dies in the end.
But this was different. Led by a colossal, virtuoso performance from Larry Owens—not to mention anchored by an all-Black, all-queer ensemble of multitalented, triple-threat featured players—A Strange Loop (now extended through July 28) is a singular, seminal Bildungsroman that casts a subversive, critical third eye on both mainstream and nether regions of the Black gay American experience that had not been shown before.
The show follows Usher (Owens), a young, NYU-educated, overweight Black gay man working as an usher at a long-running Broadway musical and struggling to write a musical about a young, NYU-educated, overweight Black gay man working as an usher at a long-running Broadway musical and struggling to write a musical (hence the loop in the title). A Strange Loop is a visceral, soulful, psychosexual panoramic pièce de résistance that may just be the most radical Off-Broadway musical of its kind. Contextualizing everything from #MeToo, Moonlight, Tyler Perry, Stephen Sondheim’s Company, and second wave feminism, Jackson’s show is a potpourri of popular culture, existentialism, and metafiction—a dazzling coming-of-age artistic journey of self-discovery.
My sentiments for the show have been shared. In a post-show talkback on June 19, “Pose” star Billy Porter joined Jackson, choreographer Raja Feather Kelly, and playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins onstage to discuss the musical. The event, which was attended by top names in the theatre community (such as Lin-Manuel Miranda), was presented by Ucross, a prestigious residency program in northeast Wyoming. Porter choked back tears as he began the panel: “To sit up there and see my life onstage, when everybody said that my story wasn’t valid—to see that up there, to see it so brave, and to see it so bold. To see it so truthful, so complicated, so honest, and so unapologetic, has been one of the most wonderful nights for me in the theatre.”
Over the course of the 2018-19 season, I saw 100 shows, and few of them affected me like Jackson’s musical. None of those other shows centered on queer bodies of color. In all fairness, it’s not like a lot of theatres are producing plays by or about queer people of color. And when they do, it’s sanitized, ambiguous, and not complex—for example, Celie and Shug’s neutered romance in The Color Purple.
Earlier this year, in a lively panel about the state of the American play (copresented by American Theatre and Signature Theatre), playwright and director Robert O’Hara wryly offered some insight into the queer POC experience in American theatre. Speaking about the 2017-18 season, O’Hara pondered the state of Broadway, which was littered with prestige London transfers or star-driven assembly line revivals of treasured classics. But he also noticed a third trend: “the amount of gay white men we have on Broadway this year.” Naming Angels in America, The Boys in the Band, and Torch Song, all of which were written by white gay men, O’Hara remarked, “There’s too many white gay people, particularly white gay men and their struggle being white and gay and male. Do we really need that many conversations? To some people, that’s diversity. But to me, that’s just more white folks onstage.”
Though theatre prides itself on being a space for outcasts, and most of its preeminent artists are gay men, their visibility often comes at the expense of other members of the LGBTQ community. In the theatre, LGBTQ plays have often centered solely on the experience of gay white cis-men and (only recently) cis-women, while people of color war in the margins for mainstream acclaim.
Whether it’s about the gay civil rights movement (Mart Crowley’s seminal The Boys In The Band, Dustin Lance Black’s 8), the HIV/AIDS epidemic (Larry Kramer’s definitive The Normal Heart, Tony Kushner’s iconic Angels in America, William Finn’s neurotic Falsettos) or communal inherited trauma (Moisés Kaufman’s triumphant docudrama The Laramie Project, Matthew Lopez’s Broadway-bound The Inheritance), gay white men have dominated queer stories, creating nuanced characters and becoming the epicenter of the narratives of LGBTQ culture.
Openly gay Black artists like O’Hara and George C. Wolfe have created work about Black queer life over three decades, but their numbers were fewer and far between. The difference now is the sheer volume of diverse queer voices. Some are even calling it a renaissance.
I trace it to the film Moonlight. Released in 2016 to universal acclaim under the helm of director Barry Jenkins, and based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unpublished semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Moonlight became the first film with an all-Black cast and the first LGBTQ film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The victory was a watershed moment in popular culture, sparking public interest in Black art and queer stories.
Ever since, queer Black theatre artists have begun to storm the proverbial tower in droves: McCraney recently returned to Steppenwolf in Chicago with Ms. Blakk For President, and his Choir Boy had an acclaimed run on Broadway after making the rounds of the nation’s regional theatres. Donja R. Love, an HIV-positive gay Black playwright, saw the world premieres of his queer period dramas Sugar in Our Wounds and Fireflies. Jordan Cooper’s Ain’t No Mo earned an extended and lauded run Off-Broadway at the Public Theater. Hailed as “The Queer Black Savior the Theater World Needs” by Out magazine, Jeremy O. Harris became a literary sensation and enfant terrible of the theatre world after Slave Play and Daddy had their world premieres this past season (Slave Play will transfer to Broadway in September).
What makes these plays radical is their candor, addressing the audience with frank depictions of queer Black life. Most importantly, these are plays that are creating discourse on what artist Lora Mathis calls radical softness, or “the idea that unapologetically sharing your emotions is a political move and a way to combat the societal idea that feelings are a sign of weakness.” In one of the most pivotal scenes in Choir Boy, one of the boys chooses an a cappella rendition of “Love Ballad” (originally by Jeffrey Osborne of L.T.D.) to express his love for another boy, but imagination ends up being the closest he’ll ever get to confessing his feelings. In Sugar in Our Wounds, an enslaved man offers another reading lessons, but the subtext is that of romantic yearning. In Slave Play, an interracial gay couple undergo therapy, in an effort to reconnect. These writers subvert and comment on the oppressive systems that affect disenfranchised and marginalized people without attacking or distancing mainstream audiences.
Not to mention the playwrights who identify as queer but whose plays aren’t chiefly about LGBTQ life: Colman Domingo (Dot), Marcus Gardley (The House That Will Not Stand), Jonathan Norton (My Tidy List of Terrors), Timothy DuWhite (Neptune), Keelay Gipson (#NewSlaves), Korde Arrington Tuttle (clarity), Jirèh Breon Holder (Too Heavy for Your Pocket) and Derek Lee McPhatter (Bring the Beat Back). Chief among these is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who was listed among the Top 20 Most-Produced Playwrights of 2018-2019 and has been honored as a two-time finalist for the 2016 and 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, respectively.
As writer-activist Darnell L. Moore noted on Twitter: “In the past few months, I’ve witnessed displays of brilliance—Black queer men who have created theatrical works that dig into the complex interior lives of Black characters. Their works disrupt & reimagine all we believe to be true about the limits of Blackness, of gender. They poke at the grounds of Black radical politics by illuminating how the freedom dreams conjured by some of the Blacks often function as nightmares for some others—trans folk, queers, drag queens, the not-respectable. They remind us about the futility of white liberalism. They refuse the white gaze.” He characterized these plays as “Black folks-loving art works” which “preach and sing and lament and celebrate and bear witness and take up arms and push and pull us.”
At the same time, Moore does wonder “how these works might be received if the creators and/or main actors weren’t Black gay men.” He has a point: Queer women, trans, or gender non-binary writers still struggle to be seen, with only a few receiving recognition such as Aziza Barnes (BLKS), Tanya Barfield (Bright Half Life), Tracey Scott Wilson (Buzzer), Nissy Aya (righteous kill, a requiem), and Ianne Fields Stewart (A Complicated Woman).
While many Black artists are generating work that are nuanced and empowering, and even dissecting of the white gaze, there are still just as many works that default towards “enterpainment.” Coined by playwright Aurin Squire in his play Zoohouse, “enterpainment” is a trope that calls for historically oppressed people to be forced into situations where they must put their suffering and victimhood on display for the education and edification of the masses. This exercise in emotional masochism has been at the forefront of many Black plays, with this trope being weaponized and commodified. Many Black characters in general are defined by their pain, and in plays that center on LGBTQ people of color, too often that pain is doubled because of their race and sexual orientation.
The “bury your gays” stereotype is still very much the norm for these plays, including some of the ones mentioned above. For example, in Donja R. Love’s Fireflies, the protagonist is a woman who clings to the memory of the woman she loved who was horribly murdered in the streets. The main character in Chisa Hutchinson’s She Like Girls is a 16-year-old lesbian who is shot and killed at the climax of the play.
Most stories featuring queer characters of color forefront the atrocities that inherently arise from the stigmatization of one’s sexual agency and one’s race. Rather than showcasing the beauty within the full expression of queerness—such as falling in love or (in A Strange Loop) standing up to your parents—too often writers are defaulting to trauma.
But this is part of a larger issue: that of Black artists working within a primarily white system who feel they must commodify their pain for white consumption. And of white producers not feeling like they’re able to challenge artists of color to look deeper, of them thinking of these artists as a single diversity slot or purveyor of issue plays, instead of artists whose careers and ideas need to be invested in. At the live event, Robert O’Hara had some advice for white producers: “You have to be able to live inside the power and the privilege that you have, and also continue to demand the rigor, intellect, and dexterity that the work requires so that it does not just become a play but a [major stepping stone for a] career.”
Recently I ran into Jackson at Musical Theatre Factory’s High Five, a gala hosted at Town Stages; he was being honored that night. Before I could congratulate him, he kindly rebuffed. “There’s still work to be done,” he said as he was greeted by eager patrons and admirers. He’s not wrong. In 2017, Pew found that younger, non-white, and low-income people (lower middle-class people of color) were more likely to self-identify as LGBTQ than whites, debunking the myth that Blacks and Latinos are overwhelmingly homophobic.
Reality is more complex than we give it credit for. And considering that Broadway is in need of new musicals in it’s 2019-20 season, there really is nothing more topical than, to quote A Strange Loop, a “big, Black, and queer-ass Broadway show.”
Marcus Scott is a New York-based playwright, musical writer and journalist. He’s written for Elle, Essence, Out and Playbill, among other publications.