BWW Blog: Representation - The Fear of Seeing Yourself or Why I Regret Not Listening to A Strange Loop Sooner
I always avoided talking about how being a black man and being a part of the LGBTQ+ community informs my writing and the topics I chose to write or not write about, as I thought that subject brought boredom to an audience. I remember bringing this topic up in my resident assistant class at my university when a guest speaker gave a presentation about Diversity and Inclusion.
I raised my hand to respond to a question about experiences to talk about how I loved shows like Fleabag, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and how those scripts have been very influential on my screenplay writing and the struggle I had from my own community, which is predominantly African-American, who mocked my pursuit to have a career in the arts and said if I were to do it I would have an obligation to the community to only write "black stories."
"Being a black man, am I limited to only writing black stories? Am I able to write more than just that? I feel like I can tell that and so much more?"
Sadly, This isn't new. In my music lessons and classes, one of my professors, who still to this day holds to his comments, told me "[he is] shocked that I was unable to play jazz." Comments ranged from "You're black and you NEED to learn how to play jazz," to comments that demeaned my want to pursue musical theatre and discredited my work as a whole: It's your roots and it's a shame that you don't know your roots...You wanna be white so bad I see?
I avoided this subject for the sake of being soporific, but in the wake of the George Floyd murder and other black lives that were killed in a racist action, I had the opportunity of talking to my non-black peers about why "Black Lives Matter." Those conversations were uncomfortable, as I felt I shouldn't be the monolith for all things "black," but those conversations were educational and productive. Now it's time for me to have that uncomfortable conversation with myself:
I love the work and have huge respect for Tyler Perry, Kenya Barris, Spike Lee, Ava Duverny, Lena Waithe, Janet Mock and the plethora of black writers that came before me, but a part of me does not see myself reflected in their stories. I understand that other people see themselves reflected in the aforementioned artists above, but I hope you understand my plea that I sadly don't. If I hear another person recommend that I watch Moonlight one more time to look for "my" representation, I will scream!
This discrepancy lies in my experiences. I remember the first racisms and prejudices I experienced were in my own community where people proclaimed that "[I] wasn't black enough." It's heartbreaking to recollect that one of my middle school classmates told me that "if I was their father's son, they would beat me until I got blacker." These life experiences, some would call it traumas, left me not culturally confused, but confused in who I was as a person and where I fit in. I spent all my education and adolescence figuring it out. It turned out that I was a guy who loved musical theatre, films, television and wanted not just a career in it but a life in it.
One of my high school English teachers told our class that you should "write what you know" and that's how you become successful. I still hold that advice dear to my heart, but as I grew up, I learned that "writing what you know" actually means "writing the themes you know." I came to this realization when I finally listened, after a few years of deferring it, to Michael R. Jackson "emotionally autobiographical" musical A Strange Loop.
I heard about Mr. Jackson when I was interning at the ASCAP Foundation and I had the opportunity to have a meeting with Michael Kerker, the Director of Musical Theatre for ASCAP. In that meeting, he gave me a list of composers I should be on the watch for and Michael R. Jackson was on the list. On the train ride back home, I researched all the names and I remember coming across A Strange Loop. Mr. Jackson was the only African American composer on the list, so I felt a strange connection to him as being a composer for theatre felt not like a pipe dream anymore. I followed him on all social media and made sure to keep an eye out for his musical A Strange Loop. I compared this show to [title of show] when I read what the musical about and [title of show] is one of my favorite musicals ever so I loved the concept. A few months pass by and I see a trailer released on the Playwrights Horizons' YouTube page for it.
I'm sad to admit it, but I was honestly scared and it took me a few minutes to get through it. It was almost like force feeding vegetables or swallowing a too big pill. One of the lyrics that subconsciously stuck with me was:
"Blackness, queerness, fighting back to fill this cishet, all-white space
With a portrait of a portrait of a portrait of a black, queer face"
This was the first time I saw myself reflected back at me and I had a visceral response. I had the same response while watching FX's Pose, but I never experienced ballroom culture before so there was a disconnect from the show being more educational than representing me as a whole. When you spend the majority of your life not seeing yourself reflected anywhere, it is jarring to see it unapologetically shown and having it be a musical - a genre that I devoted my life to - hit home a little too hard.
In the following days, Playbill released a video of the cast of A Strange Loop singing a song called "Inner White Girl." Same visceral response! I'm being represented and now my experiences, especially being a composing/theory major in college, with the way songs I write are perceived are now being shown in a song! How apropos! Everything got too real and too raw so I pushed aside A Strange Loop because I was scared of it. I revisited it for a short time when I learned that Charlie Rosen, of The 8-Bit Big Band fame (I'm a huge fan of their music and arrangements) and orchestrator of Joe Iconis' Be More Chill, orchestrated the score. My interest was piqued, but it wasn't enough to listen to the opening number and album.
Everything changed when Michael R. Jackson won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for A Strange Loop making it the first musical not on Broadway to receive the distinction and making him the first black writer of a musical to win this award. When I got the news in my email, as I am subscribed to every entertainment new site, my mouth fell to the floor. There was a sense of pride and of shame because I rejected this work because I was too scared to listen to it.
There is this thing that I learned in my music history class that derives from this very Milton Babbitt-esque mindset: "You should never qualify a piece of music by how many awards it won, but the way it makes you feel in the moment..." I took this sentiment to the nth degree, by proclaiming that I will stay away and not listen to any of the award-winning songs. Very hyper hipster-like mindset. I was at a crossroads. I wanted to finally listen to A Strange Loop in its entirety, but I had to face my own hypocrisy. Boy, was it worth it!
I would like to take the time to formally apologize to Michael R. Jackson and the cast of A Strange Loop. From the opening number "Intermission Song" and it's Sondheim reference to Company, I was immediately pulled into the sound. Mr. Jackson is very knowledgeable of musicals and I'm a sucker when a composer quotes other people or writes in a hyper meta manner. Trey Parker, Matt Stone & Robert Lopez did it with the score of The Book of Mormon and Kristen-Anderson Lopez & Robert Lopez did it many times in Frozen and Frozen II! The power of the cast and their vocals are to die for and I still try to imitate how Larry Owens sings because I love the power and intensity he has when belting.
After the end of the "Intermission Song," you immediately know what you are watching and he did this all in the opening number! Two other songs that I felt a strong relationship with were "Tyler Perry Writes Real Life" and "Writing a Gospel Play," which I think are one of the best moments in the musical from listening to the cast album. I don't know how Mr. Jackson does it, but he perfectly encapsulates the pressures of how a black man, who doesn't feel represented by his community, but has an obligation to tell a story for "the culture." That is exactly how I feel and I'm happy I'm not alone having that pressure.
A Strange Loop is a musical done in a way I've never seen before and is well deserving of all the awards and recognition. I know I will be the first online to buy a ticket and I can't wait to meet Michael R. Jackson so we can discuss this pressure that we both have more deeply!
Representation is a very powerful thing and something very significant happens when someone finally sees themselves in the media of any medium. I never understood that significance until I experienced A Strange Loop and all of these feelings and pressures as a writer of not only musicals, but a writer of stories as a whole, the power the pen has. I remember Lin Manuel-Miranda said he didn't see himself in musical theatre so he wrote himself inside the narrative with In The Heights and Michael R. Jackson wrote himself inside the narrative with A Strange Loop. Now I can't wait to write myself in the narrative.
Cast of A Strange Loop (on the 2019 Cast Album):
Antwayn Hopper - Thought 6,
James Jackson, Jr. - Thought 2,
L Morgan Lee - Thought 1,
John-Michael Lyles - Thought 3
John-Andrew Morrison - Thought 4,
Larry Owens - Usher,
Jason Veasey - Thought 5
Information provided by BroadwayRecords.com