NEW YORK (AP) — When Jaquel Spivey found out he was nominated for a Tony Award as lead actor in “A Strange Loop,” he was shocked. Not just for the normal reasons, but for the statement it made.
“This is an industry that in history has not been here for people like me. And when I say people like me, just to be specific, like fat, Black, queer men who had just very openly feminine energy. I’m not the most masculine man in the room,” Spivey recently told The Associated Press at an event honoring this season’s Tony Award nominees.
Making his Broadway debut, Spivey plays Usher, an overweight Black, gay man struggling to write a musical about an overweight Black, gay man struggling to write a musical and so on — like a strange loop. Throughout the show Usher, who works as an usher at “The Lion King,” is haunted by a chorus of six thoughts that challenge him with everything from being gay and unloved to challenging his Blackness and choices in music.
Spivey says the show created by Michael R. Jackson tells a story “that’s kind of hard to swallow” for a mainstream audience. He admits not expecting the response the show garnered since opening night on Broadway and the 11 Tony nominations that followed. It is the front-runner going into this year’s Tony Awards, held June 12, and televised on CBS.
“There are so many folks who I think have turned away from being an artist because they don’t fit. And it’s very easy to give up on yourself when nobody is encouraging you,” Spivey said.
Spivey recalls those hurtful moments of rejection before getting the role.
“When you walk into a room and the people behind the table scoff, and they roll their eyes and it’s visible. You can see it before you even sing your 16 bars. They throw you out. They don’t even care,” Spivey said.
Jackson conceived the story more than 20 years ago but didn’t get to workshop it until 2015. Along the way, the musical built an audience, opening off-Broadway at Playwright Horizons in 2019, then a 2021 production at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. before landing at the Lyceum Theatre.
Jackson, who earned the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for the musical, admits the story was influenced by his own life, right down to working as an usher for a Disney show, though he says it’s not autobiographical. More than his own experiences, Jackson believes the story is relatable to anyone who has ever felt like an outsider or wants to know how that feels.
“For some people, ‘A Strange Loop’ is a mirror. And for other people, ‘A Strange Loop’ is a window. And both of those experiences can happen in the same place. And it only enriches the experience of being in the audience and sort of participating in the loop,” Jackson said.
The title of the musical comes from the 2007 Douglas Hofstadter novel “I Am a Strange Loop” and a song by Liz Phair.
The show marks a watershed moment for Broadway when it comes to inclusion, with more creators and actors of color being represented. Spivey says it was inevitable for the time, especially with Broadway’s first normal season since 2019.
“I think coming out of a pandemic and just all the craziness that the world has been, it’s helpful to know that you’re not alone, and it’s helpful to know that you can go to a show and not just be entertained, but you can actually go on a journey with someone and watch them go through all these trials and tribulations and make it and inspire you to make it,” Spivey said.
Jackson sees the question of inclusion as more complicated than having more creators of color on Broadway.
“I think that’s going to always be in the eye of the beholder. I don’t know that there’s necessarily a fixed idea of what is enough, which is why I think that it’s also really important to focus not just on who is represented on Broadway, but also what is represented on Broadway,” Jackson said.
Among the actors playing the chorus is L Morgan Lee, the first trans actor nominated as best featured actress in a musical, and John-Andrew Morrison as best featured actor.
Morrison calls the role a privilege because the show can make a difference in someone’s life.
“I always think about that queer Black boy, right? That there might be that one in the audience who just needs to know that he’s not alone and that his life has value, and his feelings have value, and his humanity is important. So it’s nice to be in a show that’s doing all of that,” Morrison said.
Stephen Brackett, who earned a Tony nod for directing, had his own take on the show’s universal message. “It’s not forced. It’s not like forced wokeness. It’s not performative. It just is. This is their story.”
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