The theatre industry’s post-pandemic return has proved to be an extraordinary season in New York—one in which many plays by playwrights from historically marginalized communities have been given their long overdue showcases.
Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical A Strange Loop made its Broadway debut in May, as three major Off-Broadway theatre companies are producing works from Black, queer playwrights—soft by Donja R. Love at MCC, …what the end will be by Mansa Ra at Roundabout Theatre Company, and the 2022 Pulitzer winner Fat Ham by James Ijames at The Public Theatre, a co-production with National Black Theatre—all centering Black, queer characters.
Playbill visited with these four gate-breaking playwrights about identity, expectations, and their place in the industry. Read their roundtable conversation below.
Playbill: Thinking in general marketing terms…what does “the Black, queer experience” mean to you personally and how does it show up in your writing?
Mansa Ra: I love being the Black queer man. It's a really fantastic intersection to be a part of. I think that what it means is I get to have the best parts of a lot of different communities. I’m a firm believer in intersectionality and that Blackness nor queerness is a monolith. I'm out, proud, and love it. I love being gay, so it's really kind of also a gift to share that and to tell a story that is about as many different kinds of Black queerness as I could manage to put on a stage.
Donja R. Love: Can we get that on a t-shirt? “I love being gay.” … I love to tell stories about Black folks, queer folks, folks with HIV, and specifically that intersection. What does that look like, and what does that mean?
James Ijames: I'm a church gay. I grew up in the south, at a time when being really into church was a thing. That’s when I discovered that world, which is both really damaging and at the same time, I found so much of my queer identity and sensibility in those spaces—usually from the women in those spaces and occasionally from the other gay men in those spaces. I think that has had a big impact on how I write and why I write.
Michael R. Jackson: There’s a lyric in A Strange Loop where the protagonist Usher says…I should remember my own lyric…I’ll paraphrase it…he talks about being trapped in his own skin, but also outside looking in. That’s sort of where I come at this from. I wouldn’t call myself a church gay, but I definitely grew up in the church in a real way. My family was very involved in the church; I played for the choirs. The thing that was sort of unique for me is that when I was coming up, we were everywhere. I mean truly, truly everywhere. There was what I call “the Black, gay, teenage storyline” happening all around me in my high school. But even within that storyline, I was a recurring backburner character. So, I feel like I come at my writing from that perspective of observer. I am a participant and a member of the community, but really an observer.
In your own words, what are each of your works about?
Love: About 90 minutes. (laughing) I would say soft is about a teacher at a juvenile boarding school who, after one of his students dies by suicide, becomes obsessed with figuring out why. And through that journey we get to see two brothers reconnecting with themselves.
Ijames: Fat Ham is a Black, queer, southern…really particular to the South…adaptation/theft of Hamlet up to a point. It’s also a play that explores families grappling with the cycles of trauma or violence, and the younger generation ultimately choosing, or confronting, whether or not they want to continue those cycles.
Ra: what the end will be is a story about three generations experiencing transitions…of coming out of the closet, of dying…and how to stay a family and be a family, and all of the things that come with being a Black gay man.
Jackson: A Strange Loop is a musical about a young Black gay man named Usher who works as an usher at a Broadway show who’s writing a musical about a young Black gay man who works as an usher at a Broadway show who’s writing a musical about a young Black gay man who works as an usher at a Broadway show ad infinitum, and is cycling through his own self-perception and self-hatred.
Do you find yourself challenged by societal or industry expectations, and how does that manifest in your work?
Ra: As a Black person, so frequently, you have to be a credit to your race. And as a queer person you have to tell a meaningful story that is deeply important about our community. And then, as a working writer, you kind of understand that this is your one shot, because the critics might kill your career. There’s a really interesting game that comes into play…how much of the truth can you put on stage?
Those expectations are things that I feel like almost every single night, I am negotiating. The white gaze, the Black expectation, and also how gay can you be on stage…it’s a complicated equation and one that I haven’t figured out just yet.
Jackson: For me…taking it back to a lyric from A Strange Loop, which a lot of A Strange Loop speaks for me in certain ways…there’s a point a point where he sings in the opening number “All he wants is to subvert expectations, black and white/From the left and the right, for the good of the culture,” and that's sort of where I stand on that.
People put all kinds of expectations on me and my work, and it's actually been very interesting to read various people's responses to our opening. People take a real ownership of what they think the show means or what I'm doing, and I have decided that those responses are none of my business. So, I have to, in a way, not divorce myself from it, but take a trial separation from all expectations, because as an artist my job is to explore and open things up and ask questions, even of myself. I don’t have the answers. I just have the questions. I try to distance myself from expectations as much as possible.
Love: That was a word…“people’s expectations have nothing to do with me.” And that's actually work to get to that point, not just in one's career, but in one's life. When I think about my work as it relates to my identities, I think about absurdism. Truth be told, being Black in a white-leaning world is absurd. Us being able to survive is actually absurd and a miracle. Being queer in a straight-leaning world is also absurd. Living with HIV, being disabled in an able-bodied world is also incredibly absurd. So I'm really interested in how my work can hold space for the absurdity of what it means to be a Black queer man living with HIV. And, thinking about soft, how can I show my community in the softest of ways, because the world is hard. The world will try to constantly make us hard, so what does it look like to have the strength to be soft?
Ijames: I agree with everything that everyone said. I am someone who's done pretty well, but I've had many expectations in my life that then get subverted so like that sensation is a valuable, transformative sensation. To use Fat Ham as a litmus test for how that manifests itself in the work, is that people's expectation of Hamlet is going to come into the room, whether I want it to or not; I don't have any control over that. And so what I do have control over is how I meet that expectation. I've put that expectation in the room and there's some power in that. Then I can sort of control, at least to a certain extent, how people engage with that expectation and at a certain point in the play I just throw it clean out the window.
I find that queer writers in general and, specifically, Black queer writers, I feel queerness even in the structure of how they're writing. Like A Strange Loop is this beautiful subversion of expectation in the very structure of it. That’s what's exciting to me about queer writers right now—even the shape of a play is getting exploded.
There has been a lot of talk over the course of the last two years of change in the industry. Do you feel that there has indeed been a change...one that is more welcoming to BIPOC and queer artists?
Love: I remember saying to Michael after I saw A Strange Loop that to see a show about how Black queerness—I say Black faggotry—to see a show about Black faggotry on a Broadway stage truly was remarkable. Truly was inspiring. That to me is the biggest indicator that there is a shift happening. Even if it is the subtlest of shifts, a shift is happening. Which is to say…our stories are valid and our stories matter. Can there be more? Absolutely. There can always be more.
Jackson: For me this is like a very difficult question, because I feel that change is truly in the eye of the beholder, so it depends on how you define change and what your own desires are for change. My story is unique in that I spent 18 years working on one thing. I can subdivide that time in a number of ways where at times I felt very on the outside, and now I feel very on the inside. I just was trying to tell the story. Even if I was there were moments where I was frustrated with what I was seeing in the industry or where my place was, because I just had that one thing that I was very obsessed with I could never get too wrapped up in it.
Then suddenly I had this opportunity. I was always taught that luck is when preparation meets opportunity, and I just I was very lucky. At the same time, yes, now I do think that what I have playing on Broadway is significant just given the history of the industry for sure, but it's hard for me to take it as the biggest thing in the world, just along like let's say racial lines, because there's other things about it to that are different. You don't often see somebody who does book, music, and lyrics writing an original piece on Broadway, regardless of what race they are, for example.
Love: I want to honor everything you just said, Michael, because I 100% feel you on that. But I also feel myself being completely struck by something you said, which is “it’s not the biggest thing in the world,” because it’s not, but at the same time…a little Black queer boy who—and I’m actually about to cry right now—who will see themselves reflected in you, Micheal, who will see themselves reflected in you, James, and in you, Mansa…like it truly is the biggest thing in the world. It is saying that yes, this is possible, yes, you matter and your thoughts, your ideas, your imagination, your existence is important. I wish, when I was a young queer boy thinking about suicide, actually attempted suicide, to be able to read something like this, to be able to see a conversation like this…what that would have done for me.
Jackson: I don't mean to minimize. So many young people write to me, come up to me after the shows. And it touches me to the core of my being. It makes me feel good that they had that, in the same way that like I remember going to see Booty Candy at Playwrights Horizons. I saw it four times because I had never seen something that specific to my experience on stage ever, and that was something that helped me continue writing A Strange Loop.
Ra: Okay, I have a dissenting opinion to throw in, respectfully. I am a militant Morehouse man from the South and I find myself dissatisfied coming out of the pandemic. And the reason is not because I don't think that there's beautiful work and there are Black queer men breaking barriers at the Tonys, and Black folks on Broadway in record numbers and this round table. So often, we talk about the product. We are very fortunate that we are people whose stories are being told right now, but I think the thing that I'm excited about is continuing to push us toward more seismic shifts is within the process of making theatre.
For my rehearsal hall, it has been incredibly important to me that the room itself reflect the world of a play. And this is pretty intense, but I'll be honest…I count the amount of cis, hetero people in the room at any given time. I make sure that they are in the minority. And that's something as a playwright I'm able to do because I'm making the hires for these things. I’m making sure that people of color are in the majority. I’m making sure that there's never a pressure to be the person holding the flag for the gay people in the world. I feel like that has not been true in any other room I've been in American theatre. So frequently the minority identities are really burdened with so much responsibility, in addition to creating a good product.
With this world premiere, I finally have enough agency in my own career and life to say “No, I'm so sorry. This guy seems great, but I think we need to dig a little bit harder to find an assistant production stage manager who is also reflective of the world that I'm putting on the stage.” I think it just remains rare that the kind of people who are helping in the product are also that kind that are seen and held during the process.
Ijames: I just would love our industry to have a slightly healthier and more rigorous relationship to the word change or shift. I think in their mind they're when they think “shift” they think there's this new system in order in place. It’s more like, “Oh, I can move up ahead because the person in front of me move up a little bit.” It’s actually much more incremental than the story we’re telling.
I’m really fortunate that I'm in this space of having a show in New York, because I don't live in New York, I live in Philly, and so I feel really grateful that the community has welcomed me in over the years. But running a theatre [Philadephia’s Wilma Theatre], I see the belly of the beast in a way that reminds me that the work is long and hard. That hard change stuff, you don't read a book or go to a workshop and get to that. That’s changing your practice. It’s what Mansa’s talking about is like how the room is built. I can put a bunch of subversions in my script, but if the room is still putting all of these other notions into the space that are contradicting what I’m trying to do in the script, I don’t know what happens then. Actually…I do know what happens then…it muddies everything.
My relationship to what's happened over the last couple of years is that it's good, and I think a lot more people are seeing plays by people of color, in general, and queer people of color, specifically. But I think they feel like that's the work. “I saw this play, therefore, I have done my work for the week. I've showed up for Black people. I have showed up for queer people.” And I think they're two different things.
Love: It feels to me like this is also a conversation around the artist understanding that we actually have more power than the industry, than the institutions, want us to believe. Which is to say, we can actually say no to things and that can be okay. We actually aren’t crazy for saying no. We aren’t being difficult because we say no. It means that you have integrity.
How did each of create a world in which it was possible to have a career writing in theatre when it wasn’t a space you’d seen yourselves represented in before?
Ijames: I also went to Morehouse, and that’s a space that kind of tells you on day one, “cain’t nobody touch you,” so you move through the world in that way. I got a lot of bravery there. I’ve written bad things and sent them out and people were like, “this is bad.” And I’m like, “Next one will be great!” I think going to that school, and being in that space, and being in Atlanta for four years and seeing a world where Black people ran most of everything, I felt very much like “Ok. I’m in a space where Black people are thriving, so I should be able to imagine that for myself.
Ra: It’s funny because my first show was about straight people. I had a great time writing Too Heavy for Your Pocket—it was about my grandparents and it was a beautiful tribute to them, but after two years, I realized that I had cultivated an incredibly hetero-normative space for myself. I think that the courage to queer my work occurred after the success of having work at all. For me it remains an experiment that this is my gayest play. It is the first play I've written that centers a queer protagonist—three queer protagonists, rather. I feel like the courage to actually center my identities did come after the gatekeepers-that-be said “Okay, we like your voice.” It was not something that came before. I didn't have that same courage, Michael to be like, “This is the story I'm telling.” Mine was very like, “Okay what's going to get produced at the Alliance Theatre? What’s going to get to transfer? Whose ass do I have to kiss to make sure that we actually get marketing?” Those were all part of my calculus. Then I think honestly, seeing [Love’s] one in two was a moment where I was like, “this is a brilliant, personal, specific work that deserves to be put on stage.” I guess that was my Booty Candy…that was my moment where it’s just like, “Oh, I can tell whatever story I want? I can just tell the truth?” It’s not something I felt empowered to do early on in my career, and to be honest, I’m still not sure how it will go. It is still a concern of mine.
Jackson: Again, I feel I was very lucky, not in the preparation meets opportunity sense but just lucky in general, because I’m from Detroit, which is also a very Black-runs-that space, so I grew up very much with a sense of safety within that. I had teachers at every single step of the way encouraging me, me pushing in the arts. I started writing in in middle school. In my high school our teacher worked with a program called Inside Out and brought in writers-in-residence for all four years of high school. I took private writing workshops outside of school. One of the writers read a short story of mine and said “This seems very cinematic. Have you ever thought about screenwriting?” which sent me weirdly into playwriting because I wanted to write soap operas. Every step of the way people were encouraging me and, in particular, encouraging me to take risks in the work that I was making…I followed my bliss and it has worked out.
Ra: In the Detroit Public School System. That's incredible.
Jackson: Yeah. I went to high school with Dominique Morrisseau. She’s two years ahead of me. I feel very fortunate that I had all those people. Without that true village of people pushing me along I never would have even thought to try certain things. I’m like the post child for “Please pay teachers more money,” because every teacher that I had in the arts pushed me along every single step of the way.
Love: That feels like a common thread of how important community is. I know community has saved my life. Community is still saving my life. When I think about “what was the inspiration or what seed was being planted that I can do this,” I think about the version of Donja who was not like “Oh, this is actually something I can do,” but rather “This is something I should do.” I think about the version of Donja who was just diagnosed with HIV…that’s how I truly got into writing plays…because I needed to exist. I needed to survive. I needed to heal. I wrote my first play and it is a whole hot-ass mess that I will never let anyone read, but it literally saved me. I wasn’t writing so that anyone can see it, I was just writing so that I could be okay. And it became something.
Ra: I take my job, my calling as a storyteller so seriously just for exactly what you’re saying. Most people don’t get to use their imaginations for a living. Whatever world we think of we get to help realize. And to have that be a world where you survive is like the core of why we tell stories. There’s something so powerful about using your imagination to realize a future that is actually more advantageous than the present. The calling is to imagine beyond, to remember deeper, to feel more on behalf of our community.
Ijames: Remembering deeper is so real.
Ra: Because the gatekeepers…that’s something that they’re trying to take away now is the memory…the nuance of our past, both the triumphs and the trauma. But a people who don’t have a past can’t have a future. The griot’s job is to remember and to imagine.
Any final thoughts?
Love: This is something that has been on my spirit for a minute during this call…As I share how honored I am to be in this space, because I am so inspired by these writers who I’m holding space with. When you talked earlier about a change and a shift and about what does that look like and what does that mean for me, I found myself thinking about being as inclusive as possible, being as full as possible in thinking of the Black queer experience. I find myself thinking about Black queer women and how do they fit into the conversation? I find myself thinking about Black trans and nonbinary folx and how can we make space for them? This conversation is so mighty and so necessary. It's so beautiful and I can only imagine what the conversation would have been like if Black queer women were in the space, if Black trans and nonbinary folx were in the space. So when you talk about change, when you talk about creating a fuller space, I think about my siblings who are not a part of this conversation and what they are creating and how their stories and their lives are incredibly important and matter.
Ijames: And how much impact they’ve had on us. I just have to say that. They’ve had a huge impact on me over the years as a writer, whether it was in poetry or filmmaking or theatre or playwriting. So, that’s a big thing—how much they contribute to culture and yet are sort of removed from conversations around culture.
Jackson: I would second all of that. As you know we have a trans cast member in A Strange Loop, L Morgan Lee, who is just, beyond her extraordinary talent and artistic contribution, one of the greatest people I’ve ever known and been fortunate to be friends with and fellowship with and form and authentic bond, which has only enriched my life. Bringing those voices into the light is very important.