Essays

Becoming a Playwright

How soap operas and loneliness shaped my art

Michael R. Jackson
The cast of A Strange Loop singing and dancing.

In Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop, Usher is writing a musical about a young black gay musical theater writer named “Usher,” who works as an usher at a Broadway show. A Strange Loop was performed at Playwrights Horizons in association with Page 73 in 2019. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Growing up in detroit, michigan, I began writing when I was young, mostly mimicking what I was watching, reading, and listening to. For a while, it was Jackie Collins, whose salacious tales of Hollywood sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll were the literary substitute for the pornography I had no access to as a pre-teen. At the height of this phase, I wrote a short story about a successful businesswoman named Selecia (which seemed like a sexier version of the name Felecia) who harbored a dark secret as she climbed the corporate ladder. During the Stephen King/Dean Koontz years, I wrote an apocalyptic tale of a hyper-ambitious man burning to death in the climate change–induced hot sun in order to make a high-stakes job interview. Tori Amos’s marriage of classical music and groove-based piano pop settled easily into my fingers as I struggled to find my own voice, and to this day the studied listener can find her influence in some of my musical phrasing.

I grew up in a city I sometimes affectionately refer to as “Black Mayberry,” the youngest of two children. Once I discovered writing as an outlet, I used it frequently to escape from what seemed to be a rudderless, ordinary, middle-class existence, where no one seemed to want anything and nothing of consequence ever seemed to happen. Certainly nothing like what happened on Days of Our Lives, my favorite childhood soap opera. In my neighborhood, no one ever drugged their rivals (leading their loved ones to believe them dead), then arranged for them to be buried alive with a limited supply of air and water on hand so that they would suffer and slowly die while being taunted by their captor via a speaker installed in the casket. Yet Vivian Alamain did just that to Dr. Carly Manning in order to keep Carly from telling the police that Vivian had been killing Carly’s patients at the hospital while hopped up on Chinese herbs. (But that’s a whole other story.)

When Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, my mother marched in protest. But my grandfather ordered my father to stay in the house and said that if he got involved in the riots that broke out in Detroit around that time, he would beat his ass. My father stayed in the house.

By the time I was eighteen and began studying playwriting at NYU, I had a sense that I wanted to be a dramatic writer, but my ideas about character and storytelling were shaped by those soap operas; I hoped to write for one when I graduated from college. Not only had I never written a play before, I had not internalized the idea that plays were (or could be) a mirror held up to life. Unlike my soap characters, whom I spent an hour with each day year after year and who in some ways seemed like family to me, I perceived the characters I saw in the theater from a remote distance, like a little kid peering down at an anthill. The primary function of these stage ants seemed to be to carry objects from one side of the stage to the other until the curtain came down. Then at NYU things started to change. In my first playwriting class, my teacher John Poglinco told us that the definition of a story is: a character wants something, is presented with obstacles, and either achieves, fails, or abandons it. Until that point, I had never thought consciously about who the stage ants were deep inside or what they wanted. Maybe this was because at that time I had never consciously considered my own character in terms of what I wanted in life, either.

Poglinco’s definition of a story made me look inward, and my writing began to turn more personal. Suddenly everything I had experienced as a younger person became fair game for exploitation, though even in that exploitation the character of “myself ” remained elusive. When I attempted to write a stand-in for myself, the character seemed cool and remote. The characters who came to life most vividly for me were those I based on my parents, who at that point felt like the most potent obstacle in my life. But as much as their characters leapt off the page, something prevented me from moving forward; as I would later understand, my parents were key to the stories I wanted to tell, but without a deeper understanding of what they wanted I could not move forward.

my mother is a real character. A southern-born Black woman from a family of eight brothers and sisters, she was raised on a farm in a small town in southwest Georgia and was a bit of a tomboy growing up. She once told me that she punched a boy she didn’t like in the nose and then shimmied up a tree to get away from him. She graduated from Albany State University with a degree in accounting and moved to Detroit, where her aunt Ruby lived, looking for a job and a husband. I later found out that she had previously been engaged to a man whom she later broke up with because, in her words, “He felt more for me than I felt for him.” She was introduced to my father by her cousin, and they became friends. When he returned from Vietnam in 1971, they reconnected, a romance blossomed, and two years later they were married. By then she was working in the accounting department at General Motors, so she’d gotten the job and husband she wanted.

My mother is very outspoken—sometimes too much so— perhaps a carryover from her tomboy days. She says what’s on her mind. The love that she feels for her family is an all-consuming fire that burns bright and hot. When I came out as gay to my family as a teenager in 1998, the fire of that love burned me. In the heat of the moment, my mother me told me that God hated homosexuality and that being gay was worse than committing murder. My father asked me if being attracted to men meant that I was attracted to him. Everyone cried. I felt like a soap opera villainess who had destroyed the family. Like I was Vivian Alamain burying Carly alive. And though my family and I are closer than ever now, it took me many years of tending to the wound to heal it, and even after healing it there’s still a tiny scar.

Unlike my mother, my father is not a particularly talkative man, but he’s a real character, too. He tends to choose his words carefully, and is never going to be the record scratch that stops all conversations in a room. But a few beers will get him going. My father’s father moved his family from Philadelphia, Mississippi, to Highland Park, Michigan (a city surrounded by Detroit), in the 1950s. My father was the second oldest of six brothers and sisters and grew up in a close-knit family. I couldn’t tell you much about his upbringing other than that he grew up occasionally being harassed by the police. He once told me about being rounded up with other neighborhood boys when he was eight years old and held for hours for something he didn’t do just because he was Black. When Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, my mother marched in protest. But my grandfather ordered my father to stay in the house and said that if he got involved in the riots that broke out in Detroit around that time, he would beat his ass. My father stayed in the house. He did not march.

My father hated the police, and yet he became a police officer when he returned from Vietnam because it was a good job at that time. He wanted stability and a family. When he and my mother married, he got both. My older brother was born in 1976. I was born four and a half years later. My father steadily rose in the ranks from police officer to police lieutenant, retiring from the police department in 1999 after twenty-six years. The thing he is proudest of is that he never once had to use his weapon against anyone.

When I was a teenager, my father used to sit me and my brother down—sometimes separately, sometimes together—and talk to us about the White man. The White man had it in for us. The White man was after us. The White man didn’t mean us any good. The White man was not our friend. During these one-sided conversations, I remember wanting a hole to open in the floor and swallow me. I couldn’t follow these conversations to any sort of logical conclusion or figure out what my father wanted from me. While my teenage self understood that racism was real, I had never experienced the worst of it, thanks to his and my mother’s fierce protectiveness. Certainly I had not been rounded up by the police at the age of eight. In fact, I spent most of my childhood among police officers and administrative staff in the police station where he worked, hanging out with their children and waiting for him to get off work. One of his white officer subordinates loaned me a hardback copy of Stephen King’s 1987 novel The Tommyknockers, which became an inspiration for the writing I would do to escape the banality of my Black middle-class life.


THE FIRST FULL-LENGTH PLAY
I attempted to write at NYU was called DL (a title and premise I stole from an episode of Oprah about Black men with secret “down low” gay sex lives). It was about a Black police lieutenant married to an outspoken southern born and raised accounting professional who had a secretly gay teenage son. The son was having a sexual affair with one of his father’s white subordinates, who was also having a secret sexual affair with the father. The play was not good. I did not have a firm grasp on what the characters wanted or what their obstacles were or where their story should take them, other than to the most melodramatic conclusion: death. As a young artist, I was only interested in exploiting an unresolved familial conflict around my homosexuality and throwing it into a pot with whatever dramatic seasoning I could find in the cupboard.

John-Andrew Morrison and Larry Owens in A Strange Loop.
Still from A Strange Loop, a Playwrights Horizons production in association with Page 73. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The NYU Dramatic Writing Department hosted a series of master classes with professional playwrights who came to give us feedback on our plays. I got into one of the master classes taught by Kenneth Lonergan, who wrote Lobby Hero, a play I appreciated at the time though I couldn’t tell you much about it now. Kenneth brought in two white actors to read our pages. I brought in ten pages from DL that centered on an argument between the father and mother written in a specific Black vernacular. The actors made a valiant effort, but in the end their performance was cringe worthy and comically unsuccessful. As a result, neither Kenneth nor anyone else in the class was able to give me the feedback I needed: namely, that what the characters wanted was unclear, and the scene was pure melodrama. In the artistic humiliation of that moment I realized concretely that as a Black writer I would always need to do more than white writers to present and protect my work if I wanted to write about Black life. I also realized that what I wanted more than anything was for my work to be wrestled with by Black audiences and white audiences alike for the depth and complexity I felt inside. It was very important to me to figure out how to represent the experience of Black characters living, breathing, dreaming, coming into conflict with others, and making mistakes with consequences that did not necessarily racially degrade or kill them.


AROUND THE TIME OF THE 1992
Los Angeles riots, following the acquittal of four police officers in the beating of Rodney King, I remember how talk shows and news media made it seem like most Black men in America were fated to end up dead or in jail by age twenty-one. I was only eleven years old, and though I couldn’t disprove these dire statistics, I had some inner sense that I was going to live and be free.

In 2013 I was in Orlando, Florida, at a family reunion in a large banquet hall; one of my cousins came to the podium of the banquet hall and announced that George Zimmerman had been acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. On social media, many boldly declared “I Am Trayvon.” President Barack Obama suggested that if he had a son, that son could have been Trayvon. In those moments, I was an eleven-year-old again, disturbed by the fatalism that the case seemed to inspire. I found myself struggling to reconcile the idea of white-supremacist state violence with my own internal sense of hope and optimism. I couldn’t. The two ideas hung above me like cumulus clouds.

The heartbreak triggered a loop within a loop of self-hatred and criticism about my value as a gay man. I went into a quasi-depression. Even though I was in the program as a lyricist and book writer, I started writing music to work through the pain.

One morning in 2018, the NYPD burst into my apartment, where I had lived with a succession of roommates since 2005, to arrest one of my roommates, who, out of desperation to make the rent, I had hastily allowed to move in without doing a ton of background research and who, to my great surprise, turned out to be part of a multi-borough heroin and fentanyl drug ring. The police grabbed me from my bedroom, threw me on my couch, handcuffed me, and threatened to take me to jail if I didn’t tell them everything they wanted to know about my roommate. After determining that I didn’t know anything, they arrested my roommate and flipped his room upside down until they found evidence of the drugs he had been selling. Meanwhile, I sat on my couch (out of handcuffs by now) in nothing but a pair of boxers while a few of the other officers marveled at the exposed brick in my apartment and questioned me on the speed of my commute and whether my rent was reasonable. Perhaps as a matter of administrative bureaucracy, they provided me with a copy of my roommate’s arrest warrant, shook my hand, and thanked me for my cooperation. Strangely, during the ordeal I never once felt racially terrorized. I felt overwhelmed by the casual might of the state entering my home and taking my body and freedom away from me, but it never resonated within me as a racist act the way it always seemed to be during videos depicting police violence toward Black men or women online or the video of Rodney King being beaten in 1991. In hindsight, while I’m sure that I could have easily wound up dead, in the moment all I could think about was that I hoped my landlord didn’t find out that the police had swarmed though my apartment; I hoped I would avoid any legal ramifications from having unknowingly harbored a drug dealer and, most important, that I would make it to the opening of my musical A Strange Loop, which was scheduled to premiere at Playwrights Horizons in association with Page 73 Productions within the year. All I wanted was to do my show.

a strange loop is a musical about a young Black gay musical theater writer named Usher who works as an usher at a Broadway show. In the play, Usher is writing a musical about a young Black gay musical-theater writer named Usher who works as an usher at a Broadway show and is writing a musical about a young Black gay musical-theater writer named Usher, who works at a Broadway show—ad infinitum, as he cycles through his own self-hatred. I began writing the musical right after I graduated from NYU in December 2002. At the time, it was a thinly veiled personal monologue called Why I Can’t Get Work about a young Black gay man walking around New York wondering why life was so terrible— why he was so terrible. I wrote it in the second floor of a Jamaica, Queens, bungalow apartment owned by a little old lady named Ms. Ruby, who charged me four hundred dollars a month to live there. It was a dark and uncertain time in my life. The United States was two months away from invading Iraq. I had graduated a semester early and still had no clear sense of how to tell a story featuring characters who wanted something. I still had no sense of my own character and what I wanted. I had never felt more like a stage ant in my life. And no one was watching me with any interest except perhaps my parents, who wanted to know what I was going to do with my life, my BFA, and my six-figure student-loan debt.

My answer was of course to go back to NYU for graduate school, accruing more student-loan debt in order to study musical-theater writing. In the graduate program, I began to understand a little more about character, and I got my heart broken by a guy who was in the program with me. The heartbreak triggered a loop within a loop of self-hatred and criticism about my value as a gay man. I went into a quasi-depression. Even though I was in the program as a lyricist and book writer, I started writing music to work through the pain. I got positive feedback from my class and teachers, and continued writing music even though I would be paired with a composer for my thesis project the next year.

He wanted to change. He wanted to change the same way I had always wanted to change, because I thought something was wrong with me. Because I thought I was an unlovable fat Black gay boy.

The songs I was writing thematically overlapped with Why I Can’t Get Work. So I started working with a director friend to put those songs into the monologue. The monologue turned into a one-man show called Fast Food Town. I performed the show for a small audience at Ars Nova, a venue featuring new talent in New York City, in 2006 or 2007. Maybe twenty people showed up; two people walked out. I was still a stage ant. I kept picking the piece up and putting it down over the years. Sometimes the show got better, and sometimes it got worse. Life happened. I had a racist sexual encounter with a white man in Inwood. I got rejected by a Black man in Inwood. I saw a Craigslist M4M ad that read, “Inwood Daddy sucking cock all Saturday morning,” and set it to music on the spot. I worked horrible day jobs, including ushering on Broadway. My mother had a series of serious health events. I started doing Gestalt therapy. After several months I had a breakthrough in which I realized that despite my many years of self-loathing, nothing was wrong with me. Every week my therapist would have me beat a rhythm on various chakras on my body and declare that I “completely and totally accept myself ” despite whatever problems were plaguing me. She would also make me identify where I tended to hold my emotions when feeling stress. Through this process I was able to recognize my body as a container for thoughts that were capable of changing, and as a result I could stop punishing myself so much.

That personal shift also turned into an artistic one: suddenly I knew what the protagonist of A Strange Loop wanted. He wanted to change. He wanted to change the same way I had always wanted to change, because I thought something was wrong with me. Because I thought I was an unlovable fat Black gay boy. Because I felt as though even if I wasn’t going to be killed by the police, I was still just a stage ant consigned by fate to carry objects from one side of the stage to the other until I died, when in truth my only real obstacle was myself. I realized that no matter what was going in the world, it was my own perceptions of reality that would hold me back or propel me forward. It was the way that I met my tangible or perceived obstacles that made me who I was.

In my play, Usher’s only real obstacle is himself: he is on a journey to change himself through many loops within loops of negative thoughts. It is only when he realizes there is nothing wrong with him that he changes. Our parallel journeys took about seventeen years to complete. Not only is Usher a real character now, so am I.

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.
Originally published:
November 10, 2021

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