Michael R. Jackson, Billy Porter Lead Discussion On LGBTQ Themes In A STRANGE LOOP
Ucross, a prestigious artist residency program and creative laboratory for the arts in northeast Wyoming, premiered its "Ucross Spotlight" series on Wednesday, June 19, with a bold, intimate conversation between playwright alums Michael R. Jackson, Billy Porter, and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, as well as choreographer Raja Feather Kelly on the themes present in Jackson's provocative new musical A Strange Loop. The panel took place at the world-famous Playwrights Horizons theater following a performance of the show, with major themes of the conversation including reconciling with religion as a member of the LGBTQ community and "watering down" queer art for straight audiences. It is the first of many planned Ucross Spotlight events, which will celebrate its alumni's art and offer a first-hand look at their creative process.
"To sit up there and see my life onstage, when everybody said that my story wasn't valid - to see that up there, to see it so brave, and to see it so bold," Porter began the panel. "To see it so truthful, so complicated, so honest, and so unapologetic, has been one of the most wonderful nights for me in the theater. I am so happy to say that."
Ucross has hosted over 2,000 world-class artists including Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award, National Book Award, and Academy Award-winners since it opened its doors in 1981. Jackson, Porter and Jacobs-Jenkins all visited Ucross's historic ranch via the organization's twenty-year partnership with The Sundance Institute Playwrights and Composers Retreat at Ucross, a three-week retreat that brings playwrights, composers and dramaturgs together for concentrated work at Ucross, led by Philip Himberg. Its groundbreaking Spotlight series is a nationwide series of performances, live readings, moderated panels, and cultural events celebrating and supporting its numerous esteemed alumni, with more to be announced later this year.
"Ucross's heart and soul has always been the work that comes from the artists that cross through our doors," said Vice President of Ucross, journalist, and author Stephen Jimenez, who introduced the panel following the sold out performance of Jackson's show, with audience members including Lin-Manuel Miranda. "We're honored to offer artists the space and time to create in our world-class studios, amidst breathtaking scenery, at our ranch in Wyoming - and now we're thrilled to have the opportunity to support these same artists and their work long after their initial residencies. Michael is one of the bravest new voices in theatre today, and we couldn't think of a better kickoff event for this Spotlight series than a celebration of his brilliant new musical."
A Strange Loop, the professional debut of 2019 Whiting Foundation award, 2017 Jonathan Larson Award, and 2017 Lincoln Center Emerging Artist Award-winner Jackson, was partially written at Ucross throughout Jackson's two residencies. It is a semi-autobiographical work about a queer, young Black artist at war with a host of demons - not least of which are the punishing thoughts in his own head - in an attempt to capture and understand his own "strange loop."
Porter, a Tony Award-winning actor (Kinky Boots) and tireless advocate who has become a leading voice and commanding presence in his community and beyond, boasts accolades that also include a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical, the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical, and the 2014 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album for his role as Lola in Kinky Boots. He is currently enjoying universal critical acclaim for his performance as Pray Tell in the FX series Pose, which earned Porter a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor - Television Series Drama. Porter and Pose will return for a recently announced third season in 2020.
Jacobs-Jenkins won the 2014 Obie Award for Best New American Play for his plays Appropriate and An Octoroon, and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2016 as well as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play Everybody in 2018.
Kelly, the artistic director of New Brooklyn Theatre, has been awarded a Creative Capital Award (2019), a Breakout Award from the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation (2018), Dance Magazine's inaugural Harkness Promise Award (2018), the Solange MacArthur Award for New Choreography (2016), and, twice, the Princess Grace Award (2017, 2018).
With book, music, and lyrics by Jackson, A Strange Loop is directed by Stephen Brackett and choreographed by Kelly. The cast features Antwayn Hopper, James Jackson, Jr., L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Larry Owens, and Jason Veasey. The creative team includes Arnulfo Maldonado (Scenic Designer), Montana Levi Blanco (Costume Designer), Jen Schriever (Lighting Designer), Alex Hawthorn (Sound Designer), Cookie Jordan (Hair, Wig, and Makeup Design), Charlie A. Rosen (Orchestrator), Rona Siddiqui (Music Director), Michael R. Jackson (Vocal Arrangements), Tomoko Akaboshi (Music Coordinator), and Erin Gioia Albrecht (Production Stage Manager). Performances take place on the Mainstage at Playwrights Horizons through July 7.