What makes Michael R. Jackson tick, and what ticks him off

NEW YORK — Michael R. Jackson — playwright, composer, lyricist and superfan — sang along to every single song at the recent Liz Phair concert in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. He even knew the obscure “Ant in Alaska.” He took photos and beamed, he offered learned asides about alternate lyrics. When Phair launched into “Divorce Song,” Jackson let out a piercing scream that may still be echoing in the wilds of Park Slope.

What makes Michael R. Jackson tick, and what ticks him off

Jackson, 38, said that Phair, along with Tori Amos and Joni Mitchell, meant a lot to him when he was a teenager in Detroit. “All the white women rockers I grew up listening to helped me tap into my cultural blackness because they were so independently themselves,” he said in a conversation a few days later, quoting the opening of Phair’s song “Strange Loop”: “‘The fire you like so much in me/ Is the mark of someone adamantly free.’”

The title of Jackson’s acclaimed new musical, now playing off-Broadway, is very close: “A Strange Loop.” It refers to the song but also to a theory of consciousness and self by the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter.

This may sound like pretty much the opposite of a barrel of fun, but the show, for which Jackson wrote the book, music and lyrics, is equally hilarious and brutal, lacerating and tender, in its portrayal of Usher, a young, gay, black musical-theater writer working on a musical about a young, gay, black musical-theater writer.

The voluble, funny and self-examining Jackson clearly has much in common with his voluble, funny and self-examining protagonist. When we met at New York SongSpace, he was even wearing the same T-shirt as Usher, one that celebrated bell hooks, the African-American scholar and activist. Yet he describes “A Strange Loop” as self-referential rather than autobiographical — one reason he does not appear in it.

The director, Stephen Brackett, said that distinction was crucial in the show’s evolution. “It was very important for both of us to underline a sense of universality,” Brackett said in a phone interview. “We wanted to avoid the pitfall of only thinking about this as a loose-knit memoir.”

Jackson said he believes the distancing mechanism may also help audience members feel the story more and mentioned a lesson from early in his days at New York University.

“One of the first plays I saw as an undergrad was ‘Death of a Salesman’ with Brian Dennehy, and I remember crying my eyes out,” he said. “Not because I understood anything about being an older white man in the 1950s, but because of the message that in America you’re worth more dead than alive.”

By the same token, he said he asked himself, “‘What if I can make an old white man empathize with what it might be like to be a young, black, gay man and suffer — and not because he’s being killed by the police or destroyed in some way like that, but it’s actually an emotional journey from the inside?’”

When it was time to cast Usher, about four years ago, the role went to Larry Owens, who has a growing reputation of his own as a comedian. Owens recalled that Jackson posted on Facebook that he was seeking “an overweight black boy who could sing but was like Mary-Louise Parker.”

“I was like, ‘I think I can do this until you find the right person,’” Owens said in a phone interview. “Very humble,” he added, laughing. “Mary-Louise Parker meets Annie Baker, that was sort of the job description.”

“A Strange Loop” is essentially a torrential monologue by Usher, but it is rendered as agitated conversations with his “extremely obnoxious Thoughts,” portrayed by six versatile actors. In a further hall-of-mirrors twist, a couple of the Thoughts also act as Usher’s judgmental parents.

It’s worth noting that a sequel to “A Strange Loop” might have a rosier outlook: Jackson’s folks loved the show, for instance. “Their take on it was almost like I’d given them a Sardi’s caricature of themselves, and they were honored by it, in a weird way,” he said. And he is seeing someone new. “It was a surprise, but it’s good,” he commented in a rare bashful moment.

The self-loathing Usher is not there yet, however, and frequently directs pointed barbs at his inadequacies and malaise. He does save the sharpest attacks for the moralists who propagate hurtful misinformation and stereotypes — chief among them church leaders and the work of Tyler Perry, antipathies Jackson shares.

During our chat, he grew especially animated discussing Perry’s oeuvre — his customarily wide, gaptoothed grin receded temporarily; his brow furrowed. Jackson considers his films bad “on their own dramatic terms,” and says they have an irresponsible attitude toward sexuality and AIDS. He vividly remembers the rage triggered by the 2013 film “Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor,” a sentiment that made its way into a key song in “A Strange Loop” — a blistering, angry parody of a homophobic sermon.

“It’s just this core ignorance and this unwillingness to have self-inquiry or empathy,” Jackson said. “That’s where the first iteration of ‘AIDS Is God’s Punishment’ came from: I had to address it.”

The second time he became impassioned at SongSpace was when he discussed, at length, a close friend and collaborator who died of AIDS-related complications in February, after having hidden his HIV status for years.

“A lot of what I think killed him is what I call the four S’s: silence, secret, stigma and shame,” Jackson said forcefully. “Until HIV-negative people do the work of destigmatizing, I think that kind of thing is going to continue.”

In Jackson’s work, activism takes the form of truth-telling and is often delivered via the subversion of sexual and cultural tropes and their racial associations. Part of what makes “A Strange Loop” so giddily exciting is its wide range of references. The same is true of a discussion with Jackson as he veers from praising Erika Slezak’s work in the soap opera “One Life to Live,” to the 1973 musical “Raisin” and the fantasy writer Neil Gaiman — the last “a huge influence in terms of multilayered storytelling, especially on my next show, ‘White Girl in Danger.’”

That musical-in-progress uses as a springboard 1990s Lifetime original movies revolving around the titular predicament — except that it centers on an African-American teenager who decides it’s time to emerge from the “Blackground” in the town of Allwhite.

And Jackson has more on his plate. In October, the National Alliance for Musical Theater’s 31st annual Festival of New Musicals will present an excerpt from “Teeth,” with lyrics by Jackson and music by Anna K. Jacobs. They are collaborating on the book, which is based on a 2007 horror film about a young woman with a vagina dentata.

Then there is “Accounts Payable,” a commission from LCT3 (Lincoln Center Theater’s program for emerging artists) that Jackson describes as “a sort of dystopian comedy set 20 years in the future, in an office in a world that’s postliberal, postconservative, post-Republican.” (The show is partly inspired by his years working at an ad agency, an experience he remembers as “horriiiiiiiible.”)

“A Strange Loop,” in the meantime, runs at Playwrights Horizons, in association with Page 73, through July 28.

When Jackson talks about his projects, the dominant themes are curiosity, positivity and humor but also an irrepressible appetite for the possible.

“Bell hooks talks a lot about the imagination as a space for liberty, and I believe in that,” he said. “Black artists, our imaginations are limitless. I want to create an expansive world that isn’t just about my own potential destruction. I’m actually going to do the opposite of that: to talk about the potential for creation and for living and for dealing with the problems of the world, for laughing and for joy.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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