Michael Jackson Lives

In a recent post about Race and the New Generation of Musical Theatre, I gave a shout out to Michael R. Jackson, a musical theatre composer/lyricist whose work I recently came to know, and who was telling stories about people of color in a way I’d never seen before.

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I had originally heard of Michael when I saw a song from his largely autobiographical musical A Strange Loop performed as part of William Finn’s Ridiculously Talented Composers and Lyricists You’ve Probably Never Heard of But Should cabaret at 54 Below. (Well – truth be told I think I originally originally heard of him when the pop-star Michael Jackson died, and he was forced to distinguish himself on Facebook as Michael “Living” Jackson, but that’s neither here nor there.)

I then got to meet him as we were both participants of the Johnny Mercer Writers Colony at the Goodspeed Musical Theatre this past January. There I got to see more of his work on the show come to life.

A Strange Loop is, how shall I put it…graphic. It is an in-your-face look at very intimate and personal experiences of being a black gay man in New York City. Something I have ZERO experience of.

And yet, two things happened as I listened to his songs and scenes.

  1. The graphic and gratuitous nature of the language and scenarios begins to wash over you in an almost Mamet-like way, and a style begins to emerge; a style that is, truth be told, really fucking funny.
  2. The gut-splitting, “I can’t believe you just said that” moments of comedy then opens you up to basically have your heart ripped out by these moments of pure, honest sadness that the main character feels. Sadness that we can all relate to about family, religion, and shame.

It’s a very powerful piece of musical theatre.

I wanted to take a moment to highlight Michael because I sort of tossed his name out there in the post, without very much context. And thankfully he took it very well.

On his website, he posted a response to my post, and I thought he had great perspective to add to the conversation of diversity in musical theatre.

He acknowledged the fact that musical theatre – any theatre – is first and foremost a business. And its business has historically been providing entertainment for white audiences. Whether those audiences would be willing to pay for, sit through, and empathize with stories about non-white characters and situations, Jackson muses, “It’s hard to say because those white butts are so rarely asked to do any heavy lifting in that regard. Those white butts are so catered to, powdered, diapered, and put to bed with the theatre that is presented to them for mass consumption. There is a strong and consistent supply and demand for whiteness on stage.”

He goes on to lament that “as a person of color, I am asked to extend my empathy to white people of all stripes in every piece of media I consume every day of my life.” And in his opinion he finds that – understandably – boring.

He agreed with my assertion that white writers become more inclusive in their worldview, but warned that he was “wary of the knee-jerk, inartistic liberalism that can sometimes manifest in well-intentioned theatre pieces that are slavishly inclusive of people of color but traffic in emotional and/or intellectual dishonesty with their characters and stories.”

His overarching point, that I cannot help but agree with, was “JUST TELL THE FUCKING TRUTH.”

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I’ll let Michael finish this post from here on out:

“JUST TELL THE FUCKING TRUTH.

That’s the only edict I would issue at this point. If your cast is all white, is that the fucking truth? It may be! But you need to ask yourself the question each and every time and not only when you’re casting it but also as you’re writing it. Race is a construct, so in that regard, it is arbitrary, but racism is a practice–and one that is often subconscious or defacto. And it’s a practice that affects all people of color everywhere. It’s a practice that affects white people as well and I would argue (with help from Toni Morrison) that it may even affect them worse.

All of this is to say that unless your play or musical is set on Mars (and even then …), your story is absolutely going to be in inhabited by characters who have lived in a world where racism and white supremacy have impacted them in some way. Even if it’s not the subject of the play, it should be as much a given circumstance as the weather, or what happened yesterday in the world of the characters or the dramatic question of what makes today different, i.e., the breaking of the ritual that starts every story ever told. So I would challenge any musical theater writer to factor the given circumstance of racism and white supremacy into at least their thinking about their shows just as much as their BMI charm songs or their “bro characters” or their JRB inspired ostinatos. Doing that work is not easy. It will force you to move out of your comfort zone as a writer but it’s worth it if you are truly interested in creating complex, dramatic pieces of art and entertainment. In that same vein, I would encourage creative teams to tell the fucking truth by thinking more deeply about who we will be seeing on the stage in terms of casting. Are you making an offer to the same waifish blonde white actress you saw in a Juilliard showcase years ago to cast as “an ingenue” in a musical about falling in love in New York? What would happen if you cast the darkest, thickest black actress you could find? Are the consequences really so dire for the storytelling? Do you even think (or know) about colorism? Can you move beyond the outdated notion of “types”? Do you have to go to the surly Adam Driver clone who is just perfect for that gritty Adam Rapp play? What would happen if you broadened the scope of your theatrical nepotism? So much of theatre seems to have to do with who is friends with whom or who is sleeping with or has slept with or is friends with someone who has slept with someone who has money and/or access. If that has to be the case, then sleep with somebody black, brown, Latino, Asian and also broke as hell if that’s what it takes for your paradigm to shift.”

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btryback@gmail.com

Actor / Writer / Idealist
I believe a good story has the power to change the way people feel, think, and act. I’m a storyteller with a passion for changing the world and leaving it better than I found it.

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