Michael R. Jackson and Lileana Blain-Cruz On How the Pandemic Changed Theater

Michael R. Jackson
Lileana Blain-Cruz

In 2019, Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop was the first musical by a Black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play dramatizes the inner life of a queer Black musical-theater writer named Usher, who works as an usher at a Broadway theater and is struggling to write his own metafictional musical. The other cast members personify his “Thoughts” as he wrestles with his dismal job, his creative ambitions, and his alternatingly loving and homophobic family.

Lileana Blain-Cruz is the current resident director of Lincoln Center Theater. Her directing credits include Anatomy of a Suicide at Atlantic Theater Company and Marys Seacole at LCT3, for which she won an Obie Award. Blain-Cruz is currently directing Jackson’s newest musical, White Girl in Danger, which excavates the experience of a young Black woman named Keesha living in a fictional “soap opera town” called Allwhite. After years of being relegated to the town’s “Blackground,” where she is forced to perform stock roles reserved for Black characters, Keesha refashions herself as a protagonist by appropriating the narratives of the white girls around her. White Girl in Danger, like A Strange Loop, juxtaposes bright, earwormy music with complex social commentary on race, gender, and representation.

Development of White Girl in Danger proceeded during the pandemic; throughout, Jackson and Blain-Cruz spoke extensively about unconventional narratives and the future of theater. In late August, over Zoom, the two artists discussed epic stories, the economics of working in theater, and their dreams for cultural change. Their conversation has been edited for style and clarity.

the editors

lileana blain-cruz I’ve been feeling particularly attuned to the idea of “liveness” after having lived inside a pandemic bubble alone for so long. What does it mean to be in the presence of other human beings in the midst of story? What stories are speaking to us right now, creating a reverberation of the spirit? If theater is a spiritual and a civic practice that requires an act of gathering, what are we gathering about? When the stakes of gathering now are so high—when doing so can actually risk death—then why am I really here? What is the importance of this story that needs to be told?

When I enjoy my experiences in the theater, I feel all those questions reverberating. When I walked into Playwrights Horizons to see A Strange Loop in 2019, my jaw dropped. It was two hours of being flooded and overwhelmed: by my sensory experience, my tracking of character and thought and argument, my emotions around family and relationships, my core desires and needs as a Human being. The musical posed this fundamental question: What does it mean to be an artist, to strive against seemingly impossible odds? What was truly remarkable about the show was watching a consciousness laid bare—completely uncensored, hilarious, ugly, messy, vulnerable—and in that exposure being also completely free. The ideals of liveness and theater activate us on all of those different levels of experience at once.

michael r. jackson I feel so gratified to hear that said out loud. When I found out that I had the opportunity to do A Strange Loop at Playwrights Horizons in association with Page 73 Productions, I didn’t know when I’d ever get the mic again to do something like it. Because who knows when there would be another opportunity to see a high-profile Black queer musical by a Black musical-theater writer? That doesn’t happen all the time. If I and Stephen Brackett, Raja Feather Kelly, and Rona Siddiqui, the core creative team, were going to do it, we had to make it count. That meant taking nothing about the show or its production for granted. Usher’s story had to be interrogated and rehearsed with open hearts and minds. We also had to be fearless about what the show was saying and doing at every turn.

If I’m going to make art that requires people to be in a potentially life-threatening space, it has to matter.

Coming out of or continuing through the pandemic, my mission statement now is that life and time are so precious. If I’m going to put something up that requires people to come into a space that could potentially be life-threatening, it has to matter. I have to put my whole self into it. I have to apply rigor. I have to make it be worth your showing up to see it. And I have to know why I think it’s worth it for you to show up and to see it.

LBC This is one of the reasons why I am so excited to be working with you as director on White Girl in Danger. This musical, about a young woman trying to get at the center of a soap operatic story, is about someone who sees how time and life are so precious and is literally trying to live life to its fullest.

MRJ The more I’ve worked on White Girl in Danger over the last year and a half, culminating in the workshop reading you and I did together this summer with New York Stage and Film, the more I’m realizing that the pandemic turned all of us into storytellers. I started to realize that life is like a soap opera, or like a comic book. Storytelling institutions like Disney and the Marvel Cinematic Universe have had a huge influence on the American psyche. In this last year and a half, I have seen in real time what that has done to us, for good and for ill. On social media and in the news, history is constantly being “retconned,” a portmanteau of retroactive and continuity that refers to the rewriting of past events in order to suit present-day storytelling. In my view, there’s constant retroactive continuity happening all the time in American life in order to justify our self-images and the choices we make every day. When I look at my own life, I’ve lived through so many different understandings of what the present is. I can divide my life up as the last year and a half, or the last three years, or the last seven years. I can look at it in terms of my relationship to the internet and social media, or in terms of my relationship to my family. All of those are discrete bands of time and understanding.

The last year has forced us to decide what timeline and storyline we’re in. Are you an “I” or a “we”?

With White Girl in Danger, one of the things that excites me is the idea that time is both relative and infinite. The character of Keesha is somewhere between sixteen and twenty-five years old at any given time, depending on what’s going on in the story. Her mother is both maybe forty-five and also four hundred. And that’s what life feels like sometimes.

The last year has forced so many of us to decide what timeline and storyline we’re in. Are you an “I” or are you a “we”? This is the other thing I’ve been thinking so much about, because a lot of the conflicts that I see in the world seem to boil down to “I” versus “we.” The binary we’re offered is whether one is for self or one is for the advocacy of a group collectively. In White Girl in Danger, Keesha declares that she is tired of playing a marginal role in Blackground stories and wants instead to be the protagonist of an Allwhite story—a purely selfish goal which the Writer eventually gives her the opportunity to pursue. But later in the story, she convinces the other Blackground characters that following her is the key to their liberation. So in that shift Keesha’s personal desire becomes an organized rebellion for all (supposedly).

lbc One of the novels that I’ve read during the pandemic is Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Reading that felt like walking along with somebody whose experience somehow understood mine. That kind of collision between your reality and a story can be shocking and unexpectedly cathartic. I remember the terrifying feeling in the eerie silence of New York of watching the world fall apart. With the sound of helicopters flying over my little studio apartment every night, I was reading about a character who was watching her entire world fall apart, too. Even though, thank God, I’m not walking along the empty streets of California worried that at any moment I might be set on fire and murdered. But I was terrified. It felt very real, a little too close to home.

The book is essentially about these long journeys. You’re watching somebody in a moment of crisis take a long journey and arrive at a complicated destination. All of a sudden it dawned on me that White Girl in Danger is also a long epic journey. In White Girl in Danger, we start in one place, and we take this long, long path to this other side, with lots of crazy things in between.

mrj I’m a huge Neil Gaiman fan. I started reading the Sandman graphic novels when I was in high school, and I reread the whole series probably once a year. That was a huge influence on my writing of White Girl in Danger, just thinking about the questions that are posed in that series, questions about mortality, family, regrets, and the nature of stories themselves. The character at the center of it, Morpheus, is a tragic figure. But ultimately he’s a storyteller, one who is also affected by his job as the arbiter of humanity’s dreams.

There’s one amazing story in Sandman where Morpheus’s older sister Death comes in and invites him to walk along with her as she’s doing her job taking lives. When he sees his sister doing her job as the line between life and death, he begins to see the people whom he just thinks of as characters in stories as actual humans; he finds a greater appreciation for the people who dream. But at the same time, this is also the moment where you realize that he’s going to die—that he’s going to give himself over to her by the end of the series.

lbc That’s fascinating. If all roads lead to death, what do we appreciate along the way? It’s hard not to think about death constantly in this moment. This pandemic is rough. At the beginning, I was going crazy in my apartment. But in the midst of all the darkness and stress, there was a moment of respite. Having, by necessity, to sit down and put all my work and drive on pause created a meditative space that helped clarify some of the urgency I felt. What actually matters? What do I really care about? In the silence of that, I felt that I got to rediscover what this was for myself. It always comes down to people. The people you love, the people you are trying to understand. It’s why I think theater was my chosen art form. Theater is constantly wrestling in real time with the question of what it means, fundamentally, to be human in all of its chaos. So the last year was a powerful reaffirmation of why I love theater. Through all the anxiety and the frustration and fear, it is a love. It is a calling.

There is a lot of tumult at the moment around how theater is made. There is an urgent question you repeatedly ask, Michael, which is, What is it that we want to make?

mrj I’ve observed that there has been a hyper-focus on how theater has been administrated, how it should be administrated, who is represented in it, those sorts of questions. I think those questions are all valid, but they raise another question: What do you want to represent? If you were able to change all the administration of theater, from the highest commercial level to the lowest nonprofit level, if you were able to handpick all the people who would do it, what stories would you tell and why? That, for me, has been the question that hovers above all of this. Not only has it not been answered, I don’t see people asking it.

I’ve always felt like an outsider as an artist and person.

Instead, many seem to be auditioning to be the new Global Director of HR. Instead, what I hear some people saying implicitly is that we’re post-art. And that art should primarily be about advancing racial and social justice, and that “art for art’s sake” does not have a value in society, which I don’t agree with. I believe that art for art’s sake can be hugely powerful and can inspire people to go out and make the kinds of changes they want to see in the world. But it’s up to the audiences and the people making it to allow that to happen, and to create the space where that spirit can be fostered.

LBC What if people in the arts were able to feel free? That’s a question I’m excited to think about. What would they make in a space that isn’t “in relationship to” or “fighting against”? On the other hand, I wonder if that tension is necessary in connection to theater making, or if it has been in the past for marginalized artists. It sometimes feels like a fight for the recognition of our very existence. When I came up, I saw examples of artists paving the way for artists like me, writers like Adrienne Kennedy and Ntozake Shange. I saw amazing work by my peers like Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, folks who felt that they were part of creating the future. But I still felt very alone. I was in opposition to what I imagined the establishment to be: an old white space that didn’t see me in all of my complexity. Now it feels like there’s this brilliant group of people who are like, “Down with it all!” and “We are here!” So there’s no longer aloneness in that. But now the question is, Okay, cool, so what is it going to be? Let’s say we didn’t have gatekeepers. What are we going to do? When the gates come down, you realize that there’s this big open void of possibility.

MRJ I love what you said before about aloneness. Weirdly, I would say that I’ve spent a long time with that feeling of loneliness. I’ve always felt like an outsider as an artist and person because the feelings and ideas I’m usually reaching for hang from limbs located on very tall trees. And climbing those trees and reaching for those feelings and ideas is a lonely task. That loneliness is what drove me to begin writing what would eventually become A Strange Loop. It took me many, many, many years of struggling through that, and not knowing what I was doing, not having any sense of whether the show would have any sort of stage life or not, not knowing how it could even approach one.

Going back to this idea of continuity and storytelling, there are so many different continuities within me working on that piece. There was a period when I was working on A Strange Loop when I didn’t have an agent, and there was a period of working on A Strange Loop when I did have an agent. There was a period when I fired the old agent and got a new agent. Living in those continuities literally meant exploring the different facets and versions of my “self ” over many drafts. There was a draft where the character Usher was seeking alt-rock musician Liz Phair’s permission to use some of her songs in mashups he was writing, which I was doing in real life. When I received word that Liz would not permit me to do so, it changed the trajectory of the piece and my approach to exploring the idea of an “inner white girl,” which would become a pivotal song in the piece several drafts later. But regardless of these changes, the consistent thing was that I worked on that piece. I had a dream, an evolving dream of creating this piece that felt a certain way and maybe looked a certain way. I just kept pushing on it. The fact that it got produced is a miracle. But even if nothing had happened with it, using my time to work on it was important.

I realize that a lot of the plays I work on are amalgamations of nightmares and dreamscapes.

We live in a capitalist world where everything has to make you money for you to survive. It’s hard to think of art as something that you do just for yourself. I’ve always thought of myself as a man of the people, and yet I learned, as I watched people come together to demand that things be dismantled both in the country and in the American theater specifically, that I’m much more focused on myself than I thought. But I also feel that that’s okay. Because I am a “we.” I’m a “we” and I’m an “I”; I have to take care of my “I” or else I can’t be helpful to the “we” at all. I often get mad at the “we,” even though “we” is part of me. Part of me feels that as an artist my particular role is to contribute to the “we” by being as much of an “I” as possible.

When I talked to some students at Hunter College recently, I gave them a playwriting exercise. I told them to take five minutes to write what their worst nightmare version of the world was. Then I told them to take five minutes to write their most vivid dream of what they would love to see happen in the world. Everyone who shared could write the nightmare, and none of them could write the dream. I didn’t do that as an indictment of them in any way. I just wanted them to take some time to think about it. As a creator, you encounter a blank page or canvas, and you can put whatever you want on it. No one is holding a gun to your head and saying, “You cannot do this.” (Unless you’re on the internet. Then they will tell you, “You can’t do that!”). In theory at least, you have a blank page, and you can put whatever you want on it. So do you want to put the nightmare there? Or do you want to put the dream? Or do you want to do a mix? It’s truly up to you.

I worked in the accounting department at an ad agency for four and a half years. It was the worst time of my life. But that wasn’t my dream. I wanted to tell stories. I wanted to fill the page, the blank page, with things beyond anybody’s wildest imagination. And I want to encourage other artists to do that, too. It doesn’t mean you’ll be a millionaire. But it might mean that you will be free mentally and spiritually, because you can see what only you can see, and you can share that with others from the inside out.

lbc I love the idea of dreaming the worlds you want to see. I realize that a lot of the plays I work on are amalgamations of nightmares and dreamscapes that allow us to imagine an alternative while also grappling with the present. For me, creating the feeling of, “Oh, there’s space for me now!” is exciting. When I did talkbacks while directing The House That Will Not Stand and The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, I was so moved anytime a young person was like, “Oh my God, I didn’t know they did this in the theater!” Or, “I didn’t know they were going to talk about New Orleans, that’s where my family is from!” The possibility that they could do their stuff here, that those resources might be available to them now because other people have done it, that their world can exist in this space, amazed them.

Some stories haven’t been seen. A queer Black musical about a queer Black musical writer—I hadn’t seen that! If you haven’t seen yourself onstage, then it’s like the American psyche is saying that you don’t exist. There’s a deep desire to say, “I exist,” to feel that your story is in conversation with the rest of humanity. And there’s a lot of frustration and rage in this desire to be seen. Much of the fight has been about being seen, about gaining access to the resources that allow for visibility. But then the question becomes how and where and why—or not even why, but in what way do we want to be seen? Because if we tear everything down, let’s not just put back up different variations of the old shit, the shit that didn’t see us! What’s the new shit?

But the urge and the instinct and the calling have to be there. They have to be part of your creative desire. The paychecks have not changed significantly for me. And that’s really hard. Even when I was coming up and working a lot as a director, I was still getting dollar slices on the Lower East Side. I haven’t solved the question yet of how the people who have had to shift their lives to survive might find a way to live and work creatively in theater in a practical way. I do hope that there are ways to make this work sustainably. Maybe the theater industry will finally figure out how to pay people better. My hope is that the people who are in charge of or have access to those resources make them more available, and that we dismantle the capitalist system that keeps so many people so damn poor.

I want to encourage everyone to seek empowerment in the places that make the most sense for them.

MRJ That is the asterisk to a lot of this for me. I don’t think that the financial issues within theater are unique to theater. People who are not theater people are all struggling financially because of the capitalist system in America and globally. I wish there was more recognition of that. If you’re going to fight the system, you have to go beyond the theater ecosystem. Because that’s where the real power and money are. That’s what funds the people who fund the theater, the people who are underwriting this bourgeois institution. But the other issue is that I also don’t want to change theater into a factory. I do think that there is a difference between creating cars on the assembly line at General Motors and creating art. It’s a very tricky thing, because I think it means, yes, some people are not really called to do this work professionally. Still, there are a lot of different mediums and ways and places where one can make work. In that regard, I think that doing digital work opens space up for a lot of people to do things that don’t necessarily have the same pressures as doing theater in person in the commercial or the nonprofit space. For some people, they might find that they are liberated from their work having to fit within a certain box.

I’m curious why so many of these pushes for reform are focused on Broadway, as though every artist who makes art needs to make art on Broadway. In reality, it may be that you are better served elsewhere. Maybe the thing that you want to make, the kind of work you want to make, the communities you want to speak to are elsewhere. I want to encourage everyone to seek empowerment in the places that make the most sense for them and not to be seduced by other people dictating what their artistic dreams should or could be.

LBC My dream of dreams is that there is no more 1 percent! That suddenly there is a whole lot of wealth redistributed, and people are able to live better lives holistically. And as a result, artists are able to live without that sense of fear and anxiety that creates certain ways of thinking and certain choices because, say, they are trying to create within a framework that “sells” and thus leads to boxed-in, prepackaged ways of thinking.

My dream is that as people feel free, then as a result of that freedom we get to look and experience people’s strange, idiosyncratic universes in all of their complexities. My hope is that we feel free to continue to make art in all the weird idiosyncratic ways in which we see the world. That there are more artist residencies where everybody gets to go on vacation to beaches and gets to think and drink and eat good food and commune with people and everybody is relaxed and able to live! And then we go and make really complicated, visceral, challenging, exciting work.

Part of me wonders what would it look like to see more open conversation in the theater.

mrj I want to make work that is as challenging as it is entertaining. I’m very much a populist in terms of how I approach theater. A Strange Loop really radicalized me in that way because I saw so many different people from different walks of life be moved by it for different reasons. I want to do more of that, to inspire other people to want to do more of that. I feel that promoting togetherness is better than promoting division. I dream about how I can use my work to both challenge and delight, and to bring together. For me, that just means approaching my work as though everyone who will see it is a human being who is worthy of dignity and respect. As though everyone who will see it is intelligent and wants to see something they’ve never seen before. I cannot approach my work with any level of cynicism. At the end of the day, theater is a live art form with a rich exchange of energy going back and forth between the artists onstage and everyone in the audience. That is a sacred process, and anything I can do to keep it pure and clear I will do.

I’m also dreaming of a less ideologically narrow theater world. Institutionally, I perceive a very specific cultural and political psychology and worldview that could be blasted open. But blasting it open would mean allowing other voices in that normally are shut out. Voices that are conservative or religious or politically far left, for example. Voices from non-college-educated people. I think that hearing from those voices in addition to more mainstream voices would truly diversify the theater world. Liberal confirmation bias in theater has been a problem since even before the pandemic, in my opinion. (I say that as someone who is broadly speaking a liberal.) It creates an atmosphere where the same range of ideas and ways of seeing are recycled over and over and over again. No cultural or political status quo is truly challenged. And though much of the theater we see can be thrilling, I still think we ultimately tend to get a narrow and skewed reflection of life as dictated by people who all went to the same schools and socialize in the same circles and very rarely exchange ideas with people who don’t agree with them or share some version of their background.

Part of me wonders what would it look like to see more open conversation in the theater. What if we could have a dialogue where people could more openly say what they think and not kill each other, or not feel as if our whole personhood is being oppressed because we listened to somebody say something we strongly disagreed with? It could strengthen us to fight back with our words and with our ideas. That would be a beautiful and powerful thing, and it also would be a real “fuck you” to the cultural and political elites who do not want these kinds of debates to happen. They don’t want to see real ideas being shared back and forth, because it threatens their power.

lbc All of this brings up more questions for me. How do we invite more people in, in radical ways? How do we continue to cultivate respect and care in spite of or in the midst of difference? So much of what I see to be the problem not just in theater but in this country’s culture is that we are constantly being told not to respect the people who think differently from us. If we actually did—if we truly respected each other as human beings—then perhaps we would be able to hear each other differently, and then begin to honestly enter into communication with each other.

mrj I think the narrowness of theater is connected to larger issues of neoliberalism, which is part of why people are mad in the first place, why there’s so much scarcity of resources, why there’s so much inequality. My theory, which is unproven, is that perhaps if there were more dismantling of that narrowness—if we understood that there are a lot of different voices out there, that everybody needs food, shelter, healthcare, financial security, regardless of their political beliefs—the culture would also change. I would like to see the culture change in that way.

lbc Food, shelter, security. And also art. Art is a core fundamental need for us as human beings. We all have a desire for creativity, and in that desire for creativity and the ability to express ourselves we have a commonality. I can’t wait to be excited again in a theater! I can’t wait to walk into a universe that is uniquely its own! That is so thrilling. I can’t wait for people to create with the sense of daring, to keep making with a sense of possibility. To walk into visions of hope. I can’t wait to be hopeful! I’m excited to go and walk out on the other side of it.

mrj I’m excited to tell stories again. To share what it feels to be human again. Because I believe art can be both a mirror and a window, I’m excited to turn myself inside out and show people what I see, and I’m excited to sit in the dark and bear witness to what others see, and to see their insides out too.

Michael R. Jackson is the author of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical A Strange Loop. He also wrote book, music, and lyrics for the musical White Girl in Danger. He lives in Washington Heights, New York.
Lileana Blain-Cruz cruz is a director whose recent projects include Dreaming Zenzile; Afrofemononomy; Anatomy of a Suicide; Fefu and Her Friends; and Marys Seacole. She was recently awarded a 2018 United States Artist Fellowship and is currently the resident director of Lincoln Center Theater. She is a graduate of Princeton and received her MFA in directing from the Yale School of Drama.
Originally published:
December 1, 2021


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