Jaquel Spivey is having a moment. The 23-year-old recent college graduate has been nominated for a Lead Actor Tony nomination for his Broadway debut in Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, A Strange Loop.
A Strange Loop, which is the most nominated musical of the season with 11-Tony nods, is a riveting story that follows Spivey’s Usher, a young Black, queer writer who contemplates his life as he writes a musical about a young Black, queer writer living in New York.
Spivey says he’s still “processing” his nomination and the journey from his humble beginnings in Raleigh, North Carolina to the stage. The actor reveals it was a challenge to find spaces where he could be his most authentic self.
“Living in a body, coming from a culture and being expected to be a certain way—and you're not,” Spivey shares of his experience growing up. “I'm literally like six-foot-two, three-hundred-something [pounds] and I come from a family of religious folks—but—athletes. So everybody's like, 'Throw him in football.' And it's like, “I like Annie and The Sound of Music, and The Wiz and Dreamgirls is the best movie in the world. I don't want to play football.”
Spivey says “navigating life as an artist” was a struggle because his family wasn’t always understanding of his pursuits.
“‘Do you even get paid?’” he recalls his parents asking him. “’Eight shows a week and making no money [for] that singing stuff? You can sing at the church. We do praise and worship at the top of every service.’ And it's like, ‘But this is my calling and it makes me happy.’”
That call to follow one’s dream is what playwright Michael R. Jackson also felt when he began writing his A Strange Loop monologue almost 20 years ago. Jackson says his musical, which he describes as “emotionally autobiographical,” began as a diary entry of his experiences. Now at 41, Jackson says A Strange Loop is more self-referential than autobiographical, and shares that the lessons he’s learned as a young Black, queer creative are still embedded within the show.
“I began writing this piece in part because I felt unseen, unheard [and] misunderstood,” Jackson shares. “And I think that like a lot of other people who have felt that way—particularly Black queer folks who often feel like there's nothing for them in the theater—I get to speak to many of them. And so many have come up to me and talked to me about what the show means for them— how it started dialogues in their life with their family members.”
Jackson says those “touching stories mean all the world” to him because A Strange Loop came from a “solitary place.”
“And to think that a piece of art can be a conversation starter—that it can be a way of communicating between people in a positive way—that for me [is] the goal of everything,” he says. “And I only want to try to make work that can reach across the proscenium, and to pull them in and to give them something that's worth their time and money.”
While it’s reward enough for Jackson that his story, which comes from his navigation of sexuality, spirituality, acceptance and race found its way to Broadway, the playwright admits that having the early support of theater elites and celebrity producers like Mindy Kaling, Billy Porter and Jenifer Hudson was an unexpected gift.
“[It] was really a dream come true,” he smiles. “I appreciate all of their support. They've all been really wonderful about getting the word out about the show and rooting for all of us. “
Yet, for those who have seen the show it may come as a surprise that another of Jackson’s celebrity supporters is actually an antagonist of his production: Tyler Perry.
“[Perry’s] been very nice to me, which complicates things,” Jackson laughs. “He called me after I won the Pulitzer. He has texted me. We text every once in a while. “
Jackson says that Perry hasn’t yet seen the production, but is “obviously aware” of Jackson’s sharp critique of his art.
“I don’t have any personal issues with Tyler Perry, except to the extent to which the artistic becomes personal or political,” Jackson explains, making reference to Perry’s 2013 film Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor. Perry’s drama follows a married Black woman who contracts HIV during an affair. Jackson says the film’s storyline “upset” him because it seemingly suggests that this woman was being punished “for having sexual agency.”
“Why is this person with this platform putting such a poorly written, really negative sort of idea out into the world, especially given [the impact] of HIV/AIDS on our community?” Jackson asks. “And so I just wanted to indict that idea a little bit because it reminded me of things that I had grown up with and heard. And I just wanted to deal with that.”
Now, taking a moment to relish in his work, Jackson is looking ahead. With a Tony nomination for Best Book of a Musical, Jackson explains the significance of a win for his production.
“It would signify recognition from the theater industry at large,” he shares. “Sort of the most prominent in our country and maybe even the world, which would be an incredible honor.”
Meanwhile, Spivey, who is up against the likes of Billy Crystal, Hugh Jackman, Rob McClure, and fellow newcomer MJ star Myles Frost, says a Tony win “would be amazing,” but not defining.
“I don't want to put all of my faith into a trophy,” Spivey says. “And I know that sounds crazy but the work that we're doing is so much more important. Like, there is a fat Black queer man who is on stage and is the center of who's telling this story.”
He continues, “A nomination is great, but the fact that there are young Black boys and young Black queer people that are coming to see this show [saying], ‘I've never seen something like this’ That's the win for me.”