The protagonist of Michael R. Jackson’s musical A Strange Loop, which has been thrilling New York audiences with its audacious update of the form, imagines himself as the star of a “big, black, and queer-ass American Broadway show.” But as the show, presented by Playwrights Horizons in association with Page 73, begins, he’s stuck in a decidedly more mundane locale: as an usher urging tourists to take their seats for the second act of Broadway’s The Lion King. As A Strange Loop unspools, Usher—the character, like Jackson, shares his name with a pop star—rebuffs his parents’ suggestions that he write something more like a Tyler Perry play and struggles to express what he thinks of as his “inner white girl.” (The play’s title comes from, among other sources, the last song on Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville.)
But he keeps coming back to The Lion King. When he stages scenes from his family history, he names his parents Mufasa and Sarabi. Rafiki and Scar turn up too. And though it’s clear that working a menial job at a Disney spectacle while wrestling with a show of his own is sucking his soul dry, it’s also at The Lion King that a patron gives him a vital piece of advice: “Live your life and tell your own story in exactly the same way: truthfully and without fear.” With the Lion King remake arriving in theaters, we called up Jackson to discuss the franchise’s legacy, and whether spending years working into his own show has changed the way he thinks about it.
Slate: At the beginning of A Strange Loop, it feels like the fact that the main character is an usher at The Lion King might be a one-off joke. But it turns out to be a major part of the show. What role did The Lion King play in your life?
Michael R. Jackson: I was an usher at The Lion King for four years. One of [A Strange Loop’s] main musical motifs is the little intermission bells ringing, and another comes from a day when this old woman was at the bottom of the stairs to the mezzanine yelling up “Usher! Usher!” like she was hailing a taxi. That became musically where the show began. As we went into Usher’s mind, essentially he’s dealing with his parents, and the characters are not my parents, but they’re a caricature of my parents. So I just thought it’d make sense to weave The Lion King in as an anchor. That if you think of dad as Mufasa, mom as Sarabi, his brother Scar, there’s a cartoonishness that is very accessible but can also transmogrify into other things if need be.
I think the scene where I realized his parents are called Mufasa and Sarabi is also one where they’re talking like characters in a play by Tyler Perry, who is another of A Strange Loop’s touchstones.
That’s right. I just also thought the names just sounded like quote-unquote “black names.” I know they’re African names. I just thought it would be funny to make them these character names that felt like they could be in a sitcom, or a gospel play, or whatever.
What was the experience of being an usher at The Lion King like for you?
Being an usher was pretty brutal, for me at least. You’re seeing Broadway patrons up close and personal, eight shows a week. Anything can happen. There’s lots of vomit involved, and accidents, and spills, soda, and trash. Meanwhile, you’re working for the Disney machine. You have to wear these weird vests and hats. They consider you a “cast member.” That’s what your employee handbook says. And they’re very strict about everything. They want to deliver this seamless experience to the audience, so you can’t point, you can only gesture in certain ways. You have to do everything very by the book or else they get very upset with you.
There’s been a lot written about the Broadway show employing actors of color, especially from South Africa. In your experience, has that had an impact on the theater community as a whole?
I don’t know. I think it depends on what the show is. The thing that I always point out when we talk about casting more people of color in musicals, or plays, or whatever, is that almost 99 percent of the time, when we’re having that conversation, we’re talking about work created by white writers. I’m always a little wary of getting too excited about these kinds of things. We suggest that because, let’s say, there’s a black Hercules happening, that it’s some sea change, when in fact, the same white people are still going to be getting their royalties as a result of that. You know what I mean?
Sure. There’s a black Anna in Frozen now.
Or the black Ariel, or all these things. The white creators of these works never have to be held accountable for why 20 years later there’s now the first black this, or the first Asian that. I’ll be excited when Disney does a Disney cartoon written by black people. Or someone who’s not an established white writer. I know that Lin-Manuel did Moana. I think that’s significant. My bias is for the creators.
One of the big selling points of the new Lion King movie is that the voice cast is largely black. Does that make a difference for you?
That doesn’t excite me, but God bless the child that’s got his own. It’s Beyoncé. Beyoncé doesn’t need a job. You know what I mean? Donald Glover is OK. People are fans of theirs, then they’ll get to see The Lion King with their queen Beyoncé. But you won’t see them. They’ll be animated, or CGI. I don’t know. I don’t understand these live-action remakes just on an artistic level. That’s just me. I’m a little curmudgeonly that way.
We’ve been spending the last 24 hours goggling over the trailer for Cats, and it’s just, like … why?
It’s so crazy to me. Is this what late-stage capitalism looks like? I just don’t get it. Maybe people will love it. Maybe it’ll be fun to watch. I have no idea.
Did you grow up on the original Lion King movie? Did that play a role in your life at all?
I actually have never seen the Lion King movie, ever. I only ever saw the stage show because I ushered there. When did it come out? Was it ’94?
I was 13. I just think I was a little too old for it, in my mind. I had moved on from Disney cartoons by that point. I loved Beauty and the Beast. I really loved Aladdin. But something about The Lion King never sat right with me. Even though I know people love it, I just was like, “Why is it that now that it’s set in Africa, they’re animals?” Something about that always bothered me. Not on a super conscious level, but I think that was one of the things that made me less inclined to watch it.
As a musical theater professional, what do you think of the songs?
I really like the song “Shadowland,” although I think that was only on the stage. I always struggle with Lion King because it felt like Simba as a protagonist never did anything. He didn’t even push Scar off the cliff. He was this entitled prince who got everything that he wanted. Nala does more than he does. She’s the real hero in my book.
You mentioned coming face to face with the Broadway audience, eight shows a week for four years, and even though there are a lot of people of color on stage, the audience for theater in New York is mostly white.
I’m so glad you asked me this, because this is something I have been feeling very strongly about whenever I’m asked about this topic. Even though the audience might largely be white, the audience isn’t entirely white, so I would like to challenge people to reframe their thinking about that. When you just focus on the majority, you ignore all of the people of color, and the black people in particular who chose to be there. I think that their presence is part of the makeup of the audience just as much as the white audience. To me the show is about what it means to be a self in general. What it means to be a black, queer person in particular. Because of that, everyone is welcome.
Everyone who chooses to be there is welcome. I think that if you look at our shows night after night after night, there are black folks in the audience every single night, from day one. Not just on special black theater nights, although those nights are so precious and wonderful to me. Black folks have been coming through very consistently for every performance. I don’t tend to focus on whether a lot of white people are there or not. I focus on everyone choosing to be there and listening to the story, and engaging with it on whatever level they can engage with it. The white people who are there are going to be able to take something away from it about the meditation on the human condition of Usher. The person that they’re looking at is a black queer lens, even though they can think about their own lives, if they want to, through him. The black people there, particularly the black queer people and black gay men who are there, they can then feel seen. They can feel like there’s a protagonist who’s at the center of a story in a predominantly white institution, who nevertheless is still fully rendered and is a full human being, and is someone who is, in 100 minutes, cycling through his own progression of himself, and arriving at a place of personal epiphany and liberation.
I think that that’s really meaningful for both white and black audiences. You don’t get to see that story very often. I’m grateful for the white people who are there. I don’t worry about whether it’s 70 percent white, and 30 percent black, because regardless, the center of the story is still a black one. That, to me, is what’s the most important.
You bring back the opening moment with the character of Usher ringing the intermission chimes at the end of the play, which suggests that the whole thing has transpired in his mind between acts. Or I think it does. Am I reading that right?
A Strange Loop happens at the speed of thought. It felt like the piece resisted wanting to be put into too much of a temporality, but I think that more or less, it happens between Act One and Act Two of The Lion King. That was where I was when I was first starting to think about making this a show. I would be sitting there ringing bells and thinking about what could happen next in this musical. How should it start? What does the character want? All of the basic Playwriting 101 things. I’m doing my job and trying to observe what it feels like to be standing there in the New Amsterdam. This was before it was at the Minkoff. Trying to capture what it felt like to be in that moment of hating my job and knowing I was a writer, but not knowing if I could write a music about someone writing a musical, if that would even work. Worrying about men that I wanted to date. Just all the things that come up in the show. Whatever it was that I was doing during intermission, it seemed that was a cool starting place for the show.
Did going through this whole process give you a different feeling about that experience? Or about The Lion King generally?
No. I hate it. I never want to see it ever again. It was good fodder for discovering things about the show. Here’s what I’ll say. I think The Lion King is great. There are people who want to see it, who will see it, and it makes them happy. It’s not for me. It’s just not for me.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.