S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.
S2: Everything about going to a black church is like being in a place in a gospel choir, like it all is wrapped up in one like ongoing performance.
S3: The pain and the ecstasy of like being in the church for me is like the music is so beautiful and the content can be so painful.
S4: Welcome back to Working. I’m your host, June Thomas, and I’m your other host, Isaac Butler.
S1: Isaac today will be hearing your fantastic interview with Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Michael Jackson, whose voice we just heard. And, you know, just thinking about his musical, A Strange Loop, had me really nostalgic for nights spent in the theater as someone who has dedicated a huge amount of his creative energies to theater. How are you coping with the loss of public performances right now?
S5: Well, there’s a way that I feel fortunate in that I have a book deadline looming in November. I have a child who’s about to start kindergarten. I have this podcast, and I’m actually in the middle of adapting a live multimedia work that I created for Bam! Next wave to be streamed online in the fall. And those four things take up an enormous amount of mental energy. So I feel in a weird way, like I don’t really have the space or time to miss it, but as soon as I have downtime, I know that longing is just going to come, you know? And I just had a face time coffee chat this morning with a director friend of mine. He actually gave me one of my first jobs in New York City. And at one point I said to him, it’s so weird. This is the moment when I ask you what play you’re working on and how’s it going? And you’re not working on a play. And we don’t know how it’s going. We don’t know when we’re going to come back. And he said, yeah, and we don’t even know what theaters are going to come back or how long it’s going to be or what that’s going to look like, you know.
S1: No. And I mean, I think that’s another one of those things that it’s just as well that we can’t know just yet because it is not going to be pretty. There are going to be so many companies, not only theaters, but museums, performance spaces, just so many opera houses, opera companies that are just going to close or be a shadow of their former selves. It’s hard to see anything positive coming out of this current moment for the arts. So it feels like know, the thing that was good that we we have a lot of other stuff eating up our mental space, because if we could really focus on that, we’d be extra sad.
S5: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, the nonprofit arts scene, specifically the nonprofit theater scene in America was essentially this is a simplification, but it was essentially created through funding received from the Ford Foundation. And then the idea was the NEA was going to come in and it was going to kind of sustain it from there, which never really happened. And as a result, the theater in America has always been in a state of financial crisis. And so there’s not a lot of reserve, there’s not a lot of surplus, there’s not a lot of room for these this kind of major structural shock. And it is very scary. So right now, I just try to keep my head down and get my work done.
S1: Indeed, I mentioned earlier that Michael Jackson won the Pulitzer Prize for drama this year. And Wikipedia informs me that he is the first black musical theater writer to win the award, which is mind blowing. What do working listeners who are not familiar with the show need to know about a strange loop?
S5: Well, one of the things they need to know about the show is that it’s incredible. It’s really brilliant. It’s one of the best musicals I had seen in years and it is also extremely well. You can go to Spotify or wherever you you know, you can you can listen to it today if you want to, and hopefully you’ll be inspired to. But it is also incredibly dizzying and self-referential on some level. I think that for many listeners, the work of Charlie Kaufman might be a good starting point for the kind of mind that you’re dealing with here. That’s the screenwriter who wrote Adaptation and Being John Malkovich anomaly’s, you know, stuff like that. So a strange loop is about a young, gay, black musical theater writer named Usher, played by the actor and comedian Larry Owens, who shares a number of biographical details with Michael but is also not Michael. And Usher is working on a musical that is very much like a strange loop about a character, very much like Usher, who is working on a musical very much like Strange Loop and so on and so forth, ad infinitum. And as Usher tries to figure out how to do this, he is surrounded and at times tormented by his thoughts. And I hope the way I said that convey the thoughts as a capital T in it. So the thoughts are the rest of the cast over the course of the show and they also play all of its other characters.
S1: Well, what else do we need to know about Michael?
S5: Well, one of the things that makes Strange Loop so special is the way that the show really goes there about a host of various subjects. It’s a really fearless musical and it is not pulling its punches even while it is incredibly funny. I mean, to just give one obvious example, the song we’re going to talk about in today’s episode is called AIDS is God’s Punishment. The show is provocative, but it’s artful at the same time. And I say all of that as a way of answering your question, because I think all of that is true of Michael, who’s an artist I admire greatly. I mentioned this briefly in the interview, but in the years before a strange Lupe’s premiere, A Playwrights Horizons, you would see Michael posting these kinds of poems to Facebook and you’d never be sure if they were true stories or not, if they were autobiographical or not. Much like the show and they’re addressed to a roommate who may or may not exist. And they were. Beautiful, devastating, funny and fearless poems filled with vulnerability and anger about being a black gay man in this world, and to me, that’s Michael and that’s also his work.
S1: I have just one last question, which is at one point in the interview, Michael references performing an early piece at ARS Nova. So for folks who don’t know what kind of venue is that, ARS Nova?
S5: Well, in terms of size, it’s actually a quite small venue. That’s a real pain in the ass to get to. It’s on like 50 fourth in the West Side Highway. But in terms of cultural impact and theater and performance and comedy in New York, it looms very large. I’m pretty sure our previous guest, Carla Scola, has performed there many times, but it’s probably best known as the theater that developed and produced the musical Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.
S1: All right, well, let’s hear your conversation with Michael Ah Jackson.
S5: Before we get to the interview, I just wanted to mention that this particular episode, we actually have some bonus content for our Slate plus listeners to really fabulous stories, the first about Liz Phair, the second about Tyler Perry, both of whom were in their own ways important to the development of a strange loop, and both of whom Michael met while doing the show.
S1: And you can join Slate Plus today to support the work we do here on working the rest of the magazine, Sony. Thirty five dollars for the first year. And you can get free to trial right now at Slate Dotcom working plus.
S6: So, Michael, there’s so many things that we could talk about, but I just decided I wanted to leap in with the thing that I’ve had a lot of curiosity about ever since we learned you were going to come on the show. And that’s just what is your process like right now? Like where are you? What are you working on? How are you working on it? What are you up to in this moment?
S2: In this exact moment? I am in Williamstown, Massachusetts, courtesy of the Williamstown Theater Festival, who brought some artists up to give us some residencies and sort of time away from the city. But I coincidentally had been wanting to come here because I had this idea for a while of a horror movie that would be set in a town like Williamstown and I recently in the last couple of months, the frame of that horror film has come into focus for me. And so I’ve wanted to really come up here and like drink in the town, watch horror movies and sort of like, you know, just go into that zone.
S6: Is this your first non theatrical project that you’re working on?
S2: Technically, yes. I mean, I took screenwriting classes when I was in undergrad, but I’ve not written a screenplay on my own since then.
S6: Is it nice to take a break from the stage and try a different medium out?
S2: It is. But like, in some ways I don’t think of it as different because it’s still all about the stories. And so I have to go through the same. In some ways. I go through the same sets of figuring out like who, what, where, when, why beginning the end.
S6: You know, in the time since a strange loop, which, you know, your breakthrough musical, which was at Playwrights Horizons in the time since it’s closed, several big things have happened. There’s been a global pandemic. You know, you are at Williamstown, but there’s only so much of the town you can probably drink in right now. And and among other things, that pandemic has closed almost every theater in the world. There are also the widespread and ongoing protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. And of course, the third thing is you you well, you won the Pulitzer Prize. And so I’m interested, you know, there’s a lot going on that like does that any of that change your process? Do you have to kind of shut out everything in the world to work? Do you let the world in? I mean I mean, how is all of that adjusting kind of how you work day to day?
S2: It’s such a seismic shift in everything for me, to be honest. And so my I guess the way it’s changed my process is that I’m gotten a lot more internal with with the work that I’m doing and how I do it. In some ways.
S6: For the most part, I’d like it to become a very introspective, quiet time on my own in terms of process, whereas you feel like your previous process was much more extroverted, like I remember you posting, you know, kind of poems or interesting monologues and ideas on Facebook a lot. For example, there was a there was a series of poems to a kind of fictional I think was sort of.
S2: Yeah, that was like 2011 to 2014 kind of year’s. Right.
S6: Was that and those days are gone because too many people are paying attention to what you say now.
S2: It’s partly that, but it’s also that doing that was like me trying to create and have a platform on which they had my work done. And then I think professionally I had a platform to which to get my work done and I just didn’t need to use the platform in the same way.
S6: So how is that process different if you’re not sort of sending your ideas out into the world? Are you finding that to be a challenge? Do you have a hunger to be like I just really want to post a rant about this thing or whatever?
S2: Well, the other thing I do want to post many, many brags about many, many, many things. But I like also and not in the mood for a cancellation. Right. Because, like, everything I want to post will get any cancelled in the year 2020. Every single thing I’m so mad about, so many things, so many people, so many ideas, so many bandwagon’s, so many there’s so many things that are bothering Michael Jackson this day. And yet what I’m finding is that exercising the discipline to put that into my work is what I have to do more than anything. So is it just for me it’s about just being a lot more thoughtful about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, because I feel so with theatre at this point, it’s so precious. And so, like, I want to make sure that I like and giving it the the respect and the honor that I need to give it. Because that’s where all of my attention goes, is into my work.
S6: There is a lot of that tension and a lot of those, you know, the what is bothering Michael Jackson, you know, now in a strange loop, you know, a lot of it’s in there, 18 years of it, 18 years. I’m not sure even our listeners were familiar with the show, actually know that it took that long to come to fruition. So what is for people who are unfamiliar with it? What is a strange loop? What is the show? What’s it about? What’s it doing?
S2: A strange loop is what I call a self-referential as opposed to autobiographical musical about a young black gay musical theater writer who works as an usher at a Broadway show, who’s writing a musical about a young black guy in the school theater writer who works as an usher in a Broadway show. He’s writing a musical about a young black in musical theater writer who works in a Broadway show ad infinitum and sort of sorting through his own perceptions of himself and his own self-hatred.
S6: And those are, of course, dramatized as his kind of chorus of thoughts that play various roles throughout the show. Correct. You know, you mentioned that the musical is self-referential rather than autobiographical, which I think is really fascinating. What do you see as the difference between those two things? Because obviously the temptation is a listener or viewer of the show is to treat it as autobiography, and some people do even after I tell them that.
S2: But for me, the distinction is, I think of an autobiography as being a sort of linear one to one ratio of life events to fictional events, whereas a strange loop I drew from my own personal experiences. But I definitely fictionalized quite a lot of it. And so everything isn’t just like a dramatization of something that happened in my life. There are some things that happened 100 percent. That’s what the thing that happened. But like there are other things like I made that up. And so if anything, it’s emotionally autobiographical. I have felt everything that the character Usher, who’s the protagonist has felt, but I had not it’s not a documentary. I guess that’s the best way to describe it.
S6: Yeah. So let’s talk about the original version of a strange loop. Was it called a strange loop still at that point or one of the very beginning?
S2: It was only a monologue. I did have no thoughts of it being a musical. I had not written any music. I was like a straight up monologue that I wrote my last year as a playwriting student at NYU and an undergrad undergrad. So so I was like 20, 21 years old and like about to graduate with a playwriting degree. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. And so I wrote this like thinly veiled personal monologue called Why I Can’t Get Work. That was about this young black man and walking around New York wondering why life was so terrible and like it just was that. And then in grad school, I went in as a book writer who was learning how to write lyrics because I had never written lyrics before. I was a very musical person. Having grown up in Detroit, I took piano lessons from age eight. I was in all city classical choir. I played piano for church. So I was and I had lots of musical ideas, but I didn’t know how to write lyrics. So then once I went to grad school and learned how to write lyrics, I had an idea of what song form was. And then I just happened to get an assignment from one of my teachers saying, if you’re a lyricist who’s never written music and you wanna try it and vice versa. So taking what I learned about song form, I decided to take my musical impulses and try to write my own song. And the song that came out of that was the song Memory Song, which is the penultimate song on a strings loop.
S7: Five foot four high school gym sneaking a cupcake. These are my memories, these are my memories. Shooting hoops at the rim slow on the uptake. These are my memories. These are my memories. Afterwards in the locker room, my eyes photographing naked me measures in Africa. These are my memories. These are my memories of one lucky boy.
S8: I didn’t want to turn his back on the. One I gave away, I chose to turn his back on the more.
S2: Guilty. So, again, at that time, it was only a stand alone personal song. A lot of the lyrics were different at that point, but like it was like well enough by my classmates and my teachers that I was encouraged to continue writing my own music, even though from my thesis project, I was going to be paired with the composer Rachel Peters, and we were working on her, our musical only children. And so I just kept writing music on the side just for myself. And then I ended up working with this director who had read the monologue, heard some of the songs which were all very personal, and they seemed to thematically overlap with what the monologue was. And so we started trying to figure out how to put them together, which is what turned it into this one man show called Fast Food Town, which was a debt. It’s a debt song that was this one, which is, you know, another sort of version of the monologue, but with music in it. And then I performed it one night I nova and like two thousand six or seven or something. And like 20 people came, like two people walked out. And I like came from that experience, having learned something about the piece, but knowing that I didn’t want it to be a one man show. I didn’t want to be like a cabaret act. I wanted it to be a proper musical, albeit a probably unconventional one. And so then that’s when me and the director ended up sort of partnering with the playwrights round to the crack, like what the book of it was, what it was. And so that’s what it turned into. A strange though it was still very different from what people would come to see later on at Playwrights Horizons.
S6: You know, once you’re at that moment where you’re you’re cracking it, you’re taking it from this one man show to a I think you called it a proper musical, right? Yeah. You know, but I assume there’s sort of like a lot that you need to learn to be able to take this and make it your first show that you’re writing the book and the lyrics and the music for what I had to learn was like what the story was like.
S2: I’m not their story driven writer. And like, I just because it was a piece that was like drawn from my personal experience and like it and yet trying to be have something that has a beginning, middle and end, like, I didn’t there was no beginning, middle and end to my life. And so, like, I because I didn’t know what the formals conceit was, because the piece is about a young black writer struggling. But I was that so like it was almost like the piece was a mirror to me and the more I like whatever, I knew it would move. And so until I knew what it was, it was always going to be this moving thing that like I could never catch up to until I was able to, like, capture exactly what the problem was. In the story I like was living my life. And like, I like to try to go, what’s my struggle? And therefore, what’s I sort of struggle. And like, it wasn’t until I started going to therapy that, like, I realized the problem was, oh, you think something’s wrong with you and there is nothing wrong with you. And once I captured that, that was what Usher’s problem was. Something’s wrong with him. He’s got to fix it. And that that married to this sort of strange loop sort of structure became like that. Then I knew what I was chasing a bit.
S6: That’s interesting. It’s almost like once you moved a bit beyond where Usher is in his life. That’s right. You had other radically enough distance to then show I could see it.
S2: I had like perspective and I didn’t before. So, like, it then became like it was a character and it wasn’t me. It was like a different and then I can like then I was able to start fictionalizing things. I knew how to like, move story points around, how to like the characters. Suddenly the thoughts had an identity because I didn’t have one before that they just were like random characters. It just like it just became they sharpened up quite a bit.
S6: So you’re developing the show and you are the writer. You are the composer. You are the lyricist. I know, for example, like I know a few writer directors who are always really careful not to make it too easy on the other half of themself. You know, like if they’ve written a scene that’s tough to direct, they’re not going to rewrite the scene to make it easier to direct. You know, you’re playing these three very important different roles, creating it, you know, did you have moments like that where you’re like, no, this is a composition problem. And even though I could fix it in this way, it has to be solved melodically or, you know, how did you negotiate your collaboration with yourself?
S2: I think because so much of the piece was like song based that like I think all my collaborators got along really well with each other and it just became a story probably. No matter what, like if it was a music problem, it was a story problem, if there was a lyric problem, it was a story problem. Like it was always like, what is going to tell the St- the story of, like, all all of it, like the terms of it, the emotional arcs that the the style of it, the tone of it, like all of that was like, what is the actual story? But also because I’m someone who writes all three things. I think of my director as my collaborator. So like Stephen Brackett ended up becoming super important. And then as a matter of fact, he played like a really crucial part in its development, because when he came in to direct the very first reading that he worked on what he had read the script, he said, what if we cast this with all black and queer people? And because that’s not what it had been before us or the main character was black and queer, but the other characters were like there was a reading where Aaron Market played one of the parts, like it was just like all kinds. Like this piece had so many different pieces to them. Development. Chad Goodridge played a one time like there’s like so many things. It happened so many times. And like when he suggests offered that up, that like it brought out so many things that were already implicitly a part of the piece. And so then I began writing explicitly toward that concept, which then started forcing it to change. And a lot of ways and then especially when we cast it, you know, like it just then it was like, oh, it’s these bodies that this story is on. Right. And like and that and that just and that created a whole other part of its journey.
S9: We’ll be back with more of Isaac Butler’s conversation with Michael Jackson in a moment.
S5: One of the things we’d love to do with this show is help solve your creative problems, whether it’s a specific challenge about your work for a big question about inspiration and discipline, send them to us at working at Slate Dotcom if and when we can. We’ll put those questions to our esteemed guests.
S1: Welcome back to working. Now let’s return to ISIS conversation with Michael R. Jackson.
S6: You know, one way I thought we could talk about your process and about the show is to look at a specific part of the show, a specific song. And so I thought maybe we could look at what I guess is in some ways the emotional climax of the show. Right. Which is the the precious little dream slash AIDS is God’s punishment. First, can you explain to our listeners what this track is and what’s going on in it in the story of the show at this point for people who don’t know it?
S2: OK, so the thing that you need to know to sort of get into this track is that in a strange way, to Usher, the musical theater writer is trying to write this musical strange loop, which is about a black theater writer whose works as an usher, probably, as I described earlier and as part of that story, is dealing with lots of different forces in his life, which include his parents and his mother in particular, who is very sort of what her vision of him as a writer is, that he would be just like Tyler Perry, who writes gospel plays and in broad comic movies starring Madea. Like that’s like to her that’s what a like a writer is with an explicit Christian component within the is Christian component. She has a lot of sort of casual homophobia. She and his dad, the whole family that is sort of aimed at him sort of relentlessly over the course of the piece. And he and Sarah sort of disgusted by the idea of writing anything like Tyler Perry, but also his agent would also like for him to write something like Tyler Perry because he sees it as a moneymaker. And so Usher struggles with like not wanting to sell out, as it were, and to make something that he feels is not artistically worth his talents. But what ends up happening is that because his parents and his mother in particular are so like hard on him about his sexuality and he he finds that he can’t communicate with them, his mother in particular, in any other way other than to sort of like create this gospel play that he pulls her into in that gospel play is a this is God. It’s called God’s punishment, but it begins with an argument, just like a mother and son arguing about how disappointed she is in him and in how embarrassed he feels by the fact that he’s sort of explicitly gay themed music has made it out into the air and their community back home is found out about it. Three. Repeat, repeat, repeat, got after.
S10: Because if you knew all the things that I’ve been through. I’m glad they pulled your BlackBerry out of my stomach, you the ways you atop your head, it said the homosexuality was just over six years old.
S11: And, you know, you try. Why couldn’t you just be the daughter?
S2: They’re arguing about that and then he sort of goes back to sort of the homophobic tirades which caused him to sort of explode in creating this sort of satirical but like really charged Gosule place styled after what he perceives Tyler Perry style gospel plays or gospel plays in general, frankly, to be like what they look like to him, but using his own life as an experiences and points of view as the iconography of that gospel choir in the ground, that is very important that we remember what God’s word.
S12: Tired of this word and every fucking body. AIDS is God’s punishment. Sing a song, brother. So the man who we live in right here at.
S6: AIDS is God’s punishment. But my priority, the rover, he said. In the night. Now, let them know, let them know. Hey, the gospel play and its music give you a kind of readymade musical form for the AIDS is God’s punishment part of the song, but precious little dream does not have. There’s not just like a mother’s disappointment in her son song form sitting out there, as far as I know. Anyway, so how did you figure out what the music vocabulary of that half of the song was going to be?
S2: So that half of a song used to be was an early song that I wrote and it used to be its own self-contained. No, that was just I didn’t know what it was going to be in or how it’s going to fit in something. It was just its own little song.
S6: It wasn’t even in you didn’t even write it for Strange Loop. It was it was a besides.
S2: I mean. Well, I think that, like I imagine that it might be in a strange loop, but like at that point, it was so early in my process that it wasn’t even like I hadn’t even begun working with a director on the one man show version. It just was like this song that like had some thematic overlap. But I didn’t know what it where how it would fit into anything because it was such a massive song on it, just on its own. And then like, you know, years later at some point, like it just made sense to return to it. And then even at that point, it used to be in an early draft of that that that self-contained version was how the scene ended. And there was no it’s God’s punishment at all.
S6: And, you know, for people who didn’t see it at Playwrights Horizons, that moment also has sort of the show’s biggest de Teatro, which is the set, transforms into the set of a gospel play. But over it are giant illuminated letters that say AIDS.
S2: Right, HIV, they say sorry, HIV positive. They say HIV. The cross is the positive. Right. It’s not Maldonado. And that and that was also another thing about process was that that wasn’t written into the script. That was that was the set design that was set design inspiring all the rest of us. Because when we what I saw that set model, I was like, oh, I can go even further in the text than what was there.
S6: Well, because that moment goes very, very far. I mean, I remember sitting in the audience watching it and the audience’s reaction because the stuff that’s being said on stage in that moment is really hateful and upsetting. And then it’s framed in such a way that’s hilarious. I mean, there’s you know, it becomes ridiculous. It’s it’s upsetting. And you’re laughing your ass off at the same time. And you and I, we’ve both lost friends to AIDS.
S2: You know, this was and this was another component of it. OK, well, at that stage, it was just sort of like darkly funny satirical take on the homophobia in families and churches and everything. But then the thing that was happening was that like a very dear friend of mine who was actually originally slated to work on the show as the orchestrator, I found out that he had AIDS and that he had been hiding it from everyone for like a decade and had not been taking any medication, had not been like. And he sort of I went to visit him in the hospital sort of in the last month of his life. And one thing that he shared with me was that he felt like if God wanted him to live, that he would live with God willing to die, he would die. And that he sort of jokingly over text. He told me that he thought AIDS was God’s punishment in referencing the like. And he just became this like very real life thing for me in a way that it not that it hadn’t been, because I also in the development of the piece, like I found out that like a bunch of friends of mine were HIV positive, who shared that with me after seeing readings of the show or whatever. And that just got me thinking in general about like black gay men and like HIV and like where how are we dealing with this and who’s writing about it? And like, I just was because I had been, like, in my own development because, like, a lot of the sex negativity that was ingrained in me from childhood, I had a very different road than a lot of my peers who were positive, you know. And so just sitting face to face with like a friend who was dying, which I was deeply in denial about in that last month, like I literally was like, OK, now you told me. And I’m going to say to you, like, that’s like what I believed. And when he died, I just was it destroyed me. Like, I was just like a wreck. And to this day, I get emotional about it because it’s just something that I feel should not have happened. And yet when I look at his circumstance, which is mirrors my own in so many ways, I. You see all the ways in which society has failed people with HIV and black men in particular, and so then I was like, oh, this piece actually has to have a human cost to it. And so I sort of invented this character to sort of near him in a certain way. But also just like the rage that I and I sure had about the way in which HIV AIDS is talked about, given, you know, how deadly it is for people like us.
S6: Right. And then at the same time, I mean, there’s that real cost to it. But then there is also this brilliant frame that allows you to stay in the theater while it’s going on, you know? That’s right. So it’s so so because that’s church.
S2: Because church is actually the first place that I learn theater because it’s so presentational. And I grew up in the church playing like every Sunday, Sunday school at nine 20, service at 11, devotion. Somebody a lady gets up and goes announcements. The pastor’s chorus will be singing on Thursday night at Mount Ebenezer Church. Ba blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Ah. Thought for today is when prices go up, blessings come down like like everything about going to a black church is like being in a play in a gospel choir every week. But the truth of that gospel is also going home. After you go, you go after church, you go to Popeye’s to get a bucket of chicken and then you go home and then you get on a speakerphone and you start talking shit about what somebody was wearing or what I did or said at church that night. And then but then you’re going to go back next Sunday and be like, praise Jesus, Lord, unavailable to you. And and those fucking homosexuals, they’re going to burn like it all is wrapped up in one, like ongoing performance. And I’ve wanted to try to capture as much of that is as possible. And all it’s like gnarly, gross, but like joyful and entertaining moments, which is why I ask people after the show there’s a moment when they’re invited to clap on the two and the three to the song. And I was ask people who go and see. I said, did you clap or do you not clap? And it’s not a trick question. But like I’m interested in like did people when they were asked to clap along to AIDS is God’s punishment. What was their natural inclination? Because that’s part of what is the the pain and the ecstasy of like being in the church for me and said, like, the music is so beautiful and the content can be so painful.
S6: It’s literally that moment for me was very much like, well, I want to be a good audience member. You know, it’s like I want to support this work and it’s asking me to do this thing. And the other part of me was like, well, I can’t I can’t do that with what they’re asking me to clap for, like, you know, the frame and the content. They’re really get heightened within you.
S2: Yeah. Yeah. And that and I think that that’s but that’s what it’s like. Like if you want to know what being a black gay man in the church is like, that’s what it’s like is I want to and yet like it’s constant push and pull. That’s, that’s, that’s what it’s like to be a black gay self or it can be it’s one version of it that’s it’s forcing the audience to like take on this identity that that may be close to them or it may not. But like you’re you’re being asked to cosplay. AIDS is God’s punishment. Yes. You people. And then it’s also like sort of pointed finger at the theater. People are constantly asking musicals, wanting some black people to take them to church, to which I say, you want to go to church, but grab your Bible. Let’s go. Right. Let’s go. You want you want people squalling to the heavens. They squabble. But what are they squabbling about?
S6: Yes. And you put some of the show’s most satisfying vocal harmonies or most surface level delicious vocal harmonies right at that moment.
S2: Yeah, I’ve wanted it to be like literally a macabre celebration, because the music is beautiful when you’re in this scenario, when you’re in the churches, these people, these choirs, these soloists, they are like gorgeous. Like Kim Burrell has one of the most beautiful voices ever. And he is one of the most homophobic women in the collegiate church. Yeah.
S6: And and unabashedly homophobic AIDS is God’s punishment also has some choice words for pieces that are closer to a New York theatregoers heart like the normal heart and Angels in America for for the black gay HIV positive experience being left out of those stories. You you are writing a strange loop to some extent from outside the industry POV. Right. Especially the early part. You’re now I mean, you’ve won the Pulitzer Prize. You’re now you’re now part of the industry. You are you’re not an elder statesman, but you’re a statesman at this point. Right. And one of the most bracing things about that show is how it is both carefully crafted and feels uncensored and unfiltered at the same time. That’s part of what I when I think of your work, I think of that is maintaining that now, you know, that that you’re sort of more part of that world. Is that a struggle for you?
S2: Oh, Isaac. It is a struggle because, I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like received winning the Pulitzer like it’s opening doors for me. I’m grateful, humbled, all those things. But there’s always going to be a part of me that is like I’m just like that boy from Detroit, like I’m just the one that runs his mouth and that like I like like, for example, one of the publicists relates to the show, asked me if I wanted to get like a blue check on Twitter. And I was like, no, because I want I’m the people’s if I the Pulitzer Prize winner and the people’s Pulitzer Prize winner and the and the Wendy Williams of musical theater, like like you’re in the book. I wanted to ask if that just wants to be with the people and not like on high. And yet to some extent, that’s how people perceive and or treat me depending on where they intersect sometimes. And so but like as an art, as an artist, my impulse is to always tell the truth, even if it’s like inconvenient or or ugly or painful or whatever. Like I recently heard this description from Kate Bornstein of eloquence that he heard from like a Buddhist monk or something that describes the word elephants as the telling of a truth to ease suffering. And I have found that definition to be so useful, a way to think about what it is that I want to do in my work and in my life, frankly, is that I’m going to always try to resist anybody or anything that tells me that I have to, like, be careful because we’re to me, we’re living in, like, um, careful times. There are times when we need people to be loud and crazy and like, but helpful, you know, like I feel very much that theater is a it’s a place that can bring people together and that like that’s what I love the most about it. And if I can create work that can help bring people together from all different backgrounds, thoughts, ideologies, races, class like you, everybody comes sits in those seats in the dark and you hear a story. And I want to invite you all to give a shit and then take whatever energy you can from that and then go out into the streets and make whatever revolution you want to make. Like that to me is what I’d want to see. Like more than anything, beyond any outside intervention upon the theater. Like, I want to see people, like, actually inviting the audience to give a shit and like telling the fucking truth, because to me, there’s just been like a lot of lies that have been told and and we need to stop that.
S1: Isaac, I am in love. I have just added Michael Jackson to my pantheon of great artists whose every utterance I know want to hear. I loved your exchange about how a strange loop was self-referential rather than autobiographical. And it was fascinating to hear him talk about the challenge of, like, distancing himself from lived experiences when writing about them. I’m sure that would be something that will stay with me for a long time. But it’s interesting because write what you know is a classic piece of writing advice, but a play or a short story, they can’t just be diary entries, right?
S5: No, they absolutely cannot. And I actually think write what you know, that piece of advice can often be quite harmful, have taken to literally one thing that Michael discovered in doing the show, which I think is really important, is that it’s very difficult to write a work of art as opposed to, say, a diary entry or whatever. It’s very hard to create that while you are actually going through the thing because you need to have some outside perspective. Michael Show is not a memoir, but, you know, all memoirs actually take place in two time schemes. There’s the time scheme of you experiencing it and the Time’s scheme of you writing about it, even if you never dramatize that second one. And I think that’s really important. So I think to me, I always think about it as maybe this because I’m a non fiction writer, but you should write what you want to investigate or what you want to learn about or what your burning questions about. And that can be something that happened in your life, but it doesn’t have to be something that happened in your life. And I think what makes a strangely great isn’t that it’s based on Michael’s life or his autobiography or whatever. I mean, that’s wonderful. But what makes it great is the ferocity with which he is willing to interrogate his life and the world and the strange looping structure that he finds for that interrogation.
S1: Amazing. I’m always in awe of musical theater in New York. At least the performers are the best singers. There are the best actors, there are the best dancers. There are. But this interview really highlighted the degree of difficulty that Michael took on with the strange loop, writing the book, the lyrics, the music, in part because it’s hard for one individual who has created all of those elements to then focus exclusively on a problem with the lyrics are a problem with story or whatever it is. So it was really fascinating to hear about the contributions that collaborators like the director or the set designer made to the final work. If indeed the play as it was performed at Playwrights Horizons can be considered the final word, right?
S5: I mean, that’s one of the weird things about theater, right? There is no final work so long as it will be produced. Again, it’s not finished on some level, even if the text actually is, you know, nearly all art has collaboration somewhere in its creation. We often ignore it or we don’t acknowledge it. It is very difficult in telling the story of an artist in 1500 words in an essay to also include everyone they collaborated with or whatever. But in theatre, the presence of collaborators and their effect on the work and our awareness about that is extraordinarily heightened. And so in this case, there’s all sorts of important aspects about a strange loop that came about purely as a result of collaboration. One of the most significant is that all of the thoughts are played by black queer performers. If you’ve seen the show, you know that’s essential to what the show is doing. The and so when when Michael said in the interview, oh, it wasn’t always going to be that that was actually the director’s idea. I mean, I was completely shocked because it just seems like naturally, of course, that’s what the show should be.
S1: I’m very glad also that you asked him how the Pulitzer I mean, I think I’ve just mentioned Pulitzer Prize winning. You won the Pulitzer Pulitzer, Pulitzer Pulitzer. I mean, I’ve mentioned about ten times just in the course of our conversation and how that has changed his working life. I’m very glad you asked him about that. He gave a bracingly honest answer. Do you think that theatre is maybe just even for the arts in general, particularly awards, obsessed?
S5: In a word, yes. In a lot more words, I guess. I would say this theater is an extremely difficult industry. I don’t think it’s as cutthroat as it’s often portrayed. I mean, I actually think people are pretty supportive in a lot of ways. But it’s a very difficult industry because there are vastly more numbers of talented people than there are jobs for those people. And the incredible disparity between those two things just has a lot of effects in every area of the industry. And then on top of that, there’s been a big drive over the last ten to 15 years to expand the number of new plays and premieres that are produced on America stages. And so that means there’s a lot more people in the mix and it increases the power of things like awards because you have to be able to differentiate whatever show you’re offering. Right. So the next show that Michael has, it will say the new musical from the Pulitzer Prize winning writer of a strange loop. And it’s. Description somewhere, and that’s pretty likely to get someone to buy a ticket. I mean, I’m more likely to buy the ticket, right. But at the same time, one of the reasons why I really wanted to talk to Michael about it is, you know, winning something like the Pulitzer is a real life changing event. It doesn’t mean that he’s set for life financially, but it does open new opportunities. And it means that people pay attention to him in a very different way. And like all life changing events, that can be difficult to manage. And it has upsides and downsides. And so it’s just very curious about what it was like to experience that in real time.
S1: And that feels like a great place to end this week.
S4: Listeners, if you’ve enjoyed this show or if you want to hear great stories about Liz Phair and Tyler Perry, please consider signing up for Slate plus Slate. Plus, members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast bonus episodes of shows, Slow Burn. Dear Prudence. And you’ll be supporting the work we do here at work. That’s only thirty five dollars for the first year and you can get a free two week trial now. It’s like such working. Plus, thank you to Michael Jackson for being our guest this week and huge thanks as always to our producer, Cameron Joyce. We’ll be back next week for a conversation between you, June and the writer Kurt Andersen. Until then, get back to work.
S1: Hello, Slate plus members, as a reward for your kind and generous support, you get to hear a little more content this week. Isaac, what do you got for us?
S5: Well, we’ve got two stories that we had to cut for time from the interview, because this is a podcast about the creative process and not a podcast about meeting famous people. But the stories are so delightful. We wanted to get the door slate plus listeners. The first one is about Liz Phair. You’ll hear Michael talk about this in the clip itself. But originally a strange loop’s songs were going to be mash ups of songs by Liz Phair. That was the original idea. He wasn’t going to write original songs for it. And although that didn’t work out, she did end up becoming a big supporter of the show and he did end up meeting her.
S13: So why don’t we go ahead and take a listen in a very early draft or many early drafts of the show. Usher had this obsession with this writer, Liz Phair.
S2: And in early drafts, I wrote he was right. He and I were writing songs that were mash ups of her songs from her first album, Exile in Guyville. And so those songs culminated in a mash up with her that the last track on that album, Strange Loop in the story, Usher was trying to get permission from Liz Phair to let him use the music in the piece, which I was also doing in real life and having great difficulty making contact with her. And then eventually I did make contact with her and he said, no, you may not use this. And it’s what ended up being the best thing that could have happened, because it actually gave me a really solid advice. Use find your own musical voice in this and use that to tell your story. Don’t rely on me. I didn’t rely on the Rolling Stones. You couldn’t rely on me. It’s amazing.
S6: And she has been very happy for the show’s success.
S2: Yeah. And it was funny at that point. I hadn’t I that was a note that was emailed to me through from someone else who had made the contact with. So like he didn’t really know about anything about what the piece actually really was. All she saw was like this request to use the music for x Y reason. And so it was it was not until years later when the show was happening and like I got a write up in the Times and stuff that he finally had taken notice. I also had met Tabitha Soren, who had at this like crazy Illuminati event that I like Jeff Bezos thing like how is the Illuminati part of your process, Michael? I mean, I just wanted coronate like I went to this like, crazy retreat thing where Tabitha Sobran and many other, like, super famous people were. And I end up talking to her and she mentioned that she was going to be interviewing Liz Phair twenty five years after she had interviewed her on MTV. And I was like, oh, wow, Liz, they’re just so you know, I’m like a super fan and blah, blah, blah. And he was kind of like, oh, my God. Like, here’s this random person at this, like crazy, like rich, famous people thing. And this clearly, I’m sure not rich, famous person who’s here knows all about listening and somebody talking a lot about her. And so when he did interviewed her, she like mentioned her to me. And I think that plus the New York Times thing that like had reference that I referenced her like it just all finally caught up in her brain. And so then she became like, I think very complimentary. And then I got to meet her because I went to a concert in New Jersey with my friend James Jackson and a friend of and Doug Wright’s husband went to high school, was there, and his husband went to high school with her and Nutrio and he got to go backstage. But then they said, I can come backstage because I have a special pass. And I think, OK, that’s fine. But then me and James is happy to sit around and we’re standing in the hall after the concert. And then Liz came onto the stage and I just said something to him. I just walk up to the stage and just wave. And I did. And then when he saw me, he recognized me because I can’t just talk to Tabitha Soren and like in all the pieces together, she invited me backstage and like, I got to, like, having a proper conversation with her.
S13: So that was also strange with, like, everything strange loop, like so many thing, weird coincidences and crazy things in motion that, like, I could, like, write a whole book just about that.
S1: That was a great Liz Phair story, and I believe the next one is going to be about Tyler Perry.
S5: Yeah, so if you don’t know a strange loop, Tyler Perry is kind of a negative influence on the show in that Usher’s parents want Usher to write a gospel play in the style of the work of Tyler Perry. And you know, Tyler Perry’s work is overtly Christian, it’s overtly conservative, it’s overtly homophobic. And the song AIDS is God’s Punishment is actually, in some ways the show’s response to the work of Tyler Perry. But it turns out that the show got famous enough that Tyler Perry heard about it. And so you’ll hear a little bit about what happened there as a result.
S6: Tyler Perry did actually call you to talk about the show, which I imagine is a very strange experience to go through.
S2: Yes. So what happened was it was the day, a day or two after I won the Pulitzer and it had gotten back to me from my friend Jordan Cooper, who has a relationship with Tyler, I believe. And I think they might be working on a project together. I don’t know. But like that he had spoken to Tyler and that Tyler had told him to tell me that he was going to beat my ass. And so I said, well, you tell him that I’ll I’ll meet him wherever he’s ready, like I’ve got Vaseline for my face, just like he does. And so then the next day I was on the phone with my mother when I get receive a text from Tyler and then I ignore it because I’m on the phone with my mother and then the phone.
S6: But about horse, it was when you were on the phone with your bride.
S2: I mean, like I know. And then I keep talking about another and then the phone, I get a phone call and I see that it’s an Atlanta area code. I know that it’s him. So I’m like, Hey, Mom, let me call you back. And so then I’m like, Hello, this is Michael. So I answer the phone when I don’t know who it is. And he’s like, This is Tyler Perry. And I’m like, Oh, hello, you know? And like, he’s like, you know, he’s like, Nigga, I’m going to beat your ass. And I was like, All right, let’s go whenever you’re ready, you know, like and then he’s like, no, but seriously, congratulations on the Pulitzer. And it’s a big deal. Like I hear that, like you were the first black something or other. And so I break it down and that I was the first black musical theatre writer to win for drama, the first black musical theater writer to win for drama, and like the second black man to win period for drama. But he was like thought that was great. And then he sort of mentioned that he knows from talking to leave Daniels that, like a lot of young black writers often complain that people, their family members often say you should write more like him and that he feels like everybody should be able to write whatever they want. And I said, I totally agree with you on that. And so if you want to have, like, a deeper conversation about this at a later date, I will be happy to do that. And then he was like, no graduations. And and I said, I want you. And he said I said I hadn’t seen the show. I’d heard about it, but I didn’t see it. I said, well, if you want to listen to the cast album, it’s available wherever you get music. And he was like, oh, maybe I’ll call up Jay-Z and see if it’s on title. And I was like, I don’t know what it’s on there, but maybe and that’s a flex. I know it was such a flex, but unfortunately it was not was lost on me. And then, like he said something like without the phone like, oh, well, you should be glad I didn’t try to get a piece of you using my name or something like anyone. I was like, ah ha ha ha ha. And then like, we hung up and then like two minutes later, he texted me a screenshot of the cast album showing that he had bought it off a title and that he had listened to the song. Tyler Perry writes for a life which is funny to me. He didn’t say what he thought of it, but what’s funny to me about that is like what he actually listened to was writing gospel plays. Right, because the song I’m telling you. Right. So Mike, is this weird veneration of him by the ancestors, whereas writing and gospel play is like a take down of the form that he works in.
S14: Schneekloth Michelle Adam made some tater salad. Come on now. I put my foot in this. Oh, my party. I love me some tater salad now and I’m hoping they’ll grow fast behind. Ain’t hungry for nothing but a crack rock and a stripper pole girl. Go wash your hand. And Pattie, only God can judge me. He seemed quite impressed. So don’t come for me. Ha ha ha. ATwo. What wrong, baby you ain’t?