When it was announced that Michael R. Jackson had won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in drama for his musical A Strange Loop—making him the first openly Black gay man to earn the distinction—it felt as if the entire world might erupt with cheers. Much like the win for his fellow Black gay writer, Jericho Brown—who won this year’s prize in poetry—the moment proved a much-needed reprieve from the nonstop horror show that is 2020 (read our interview with Brown here.).
For those who missed the production at Playwrights Horizons in New York City last summer, A Strange Loop was the event of 2019’s theatrical season. It followed the misadventures of a Black, gay theater usher, named Usher, forced to ghostwrite a new Tyler Perry movie while dealing with crippling thoughts—which frequently manifest to torture him—and the limitations imposed on navigating New York’s white patriarchy–dominated gay scene.
Though currently working on a number of new projects, Jackson took a moment to speak with TheBody about winning the Pulitzer as well as what it means to stand up for HIV-positive lives.
Michael R. Jackson: It’s been interesting watching the theater community react to the news. It feels strangely amplified, because it feels like a win for the community, and I never would have anticipated it having that flavor.
Juan Michael Porter II: I don’t like that I’m saying this, but it’s not the work that was “supposed to” receive this accolade, according to the common narrative.
MRJ: Yeah. I mean, I thought at best it would get short-listed, and I would have been totally happy with that, but when I heard it won the Pulitzer, I was like, “There’s a global significance to this.” It felt like confirmation of my mission statement, to make work that is as challenging as it is entertaining.
JMPII: I can see that. This is the only musical I know of that engages with mental health in a real way. Does that dynamic come from your real life?
MRJ: I’ve definitely dealt with self-hatred, intimately. But something I have to keep telling people is that A Strange Loop is self-referential, not autobiographical, though I have felt everything Usher felt in the piece. [Like the lead character, Usher], I came from a very Black background. I’m from Detroit; I grew up in a Black family, I went to Black churches, I went to Black schools, the first boys I kissed were Black, the first dicks I sucked were Black. Everything was Black. And then I moved to New York City, and the world turned upside down. I had to really reorient myself to a white gay context, and that was a struggle for many years because I didn’t see a lot of other Black gay men or have Black friends, frankly, that I could be involved with.
That has changed over the years. Now I have many Black gay friends, and I’ve come to understand that I want Black gay male affection in my life. I don’t want to seek out white partners. That’s no shade related to white partners. I have been known to throw shade at interracial relationships from time to time, but it’s only because those relationships are often highlighted as progress in ways that Black queer relationships are not. It’s a subtle undermining of Black love.
Something I’ve come to realize, that was helpful for my mental health, was realizing that I wanted Black lives and that there was nothing wrong with pursuing that or explicitly saying, “That’s what I want.” I have lots of friends in interracial relationships, and I have nothing against that, but this culture has a really strange anti-Black thing that I have a problem with.
With A Strange Loop, I really wanted to push back against the idea that Black is not universal; that white consciousness is the default sort of understanding for everyone. That if you’re a person of color, or in my case, African descended, then your experience of yourself is the secondary thing and not its own universality. My consciousness is universal, and if a white person doesn’t totally understand it, that doesn’t mean that it’s a failure or bad.
JMPII: Yes! Another thing that I loved was how the show accurately captured the fear that contracting HIV was a preordained eventuality for gay men.
MRJ: As a kid, I heard those messages—that “AIDS was God’s punishment,” and that I was going to get HIV if I was sexually active. I struggle with that even to this day. I’m not a prude per se, but there is an aspect of my sexuality that has not fully expressed itself in the way that a lot of my peers have: experimenting, testing my boundaries, or wondering what it would mean to go to a sex club or an orgy; all the things that everyone does.
I resisted a lot of that for quite a long time, because it was wrapped up in HIV panic. But the other thing that is true is that I didn’t know anyone who was HIV positive other than a relative who I was always warned about as a kid.
JMPII: Is that what inspired you to introduce HIV into the show?
MRJ: On one level, yes. Another level was finding out that a friend of mine was HIV positive. That changed the landscape of our relationship, because then I found out that other people around me were HIV positive, and that ran counter to this message about Truvada and AIDS being over. Another level was seeing the movie Confessions of a Marriage Counselor by Tyler Perry, who just called me on the phone today. So that’s a whole other thing.
I was enraged with the way that he depicted AIDS in that movie, because he has had such an impact on the Black community, and I couldn’t believe that he was depicting it in such an irresponsible way and having this sort of “AIDS is God’s punishment” tone to it. The song, “AIDS is God’s punishment,” literally came as a direct response to the images and narratives in that movie, with AIDS as an indictment of homophobia and the church’s demonization of sexuality in a satirical sense.
The final piece was finding out that a very dear friend of mine had been hiding that he was HIV positive for about a decade. He was doing a lot of compartmentalizing with everyone in his life to keep it hidden and had not been taking any medication. When he called me to visit him in the hospital, I sort of panicked and went into this zone of thinking I was gonna save him. But then he died a month later, and it was such a shattering loss for me, in part because when I asked him, “Why did you keep it from us?” he basically told me, “AIDS is God’s punishment,” and he thought that if God wanted him to live, he would live, and if God wanted him to die, he would die.
When I went to his funeral, the pastor of his church that he’d attended as a child said something about his death that really alarmed me, and I was just like ... this whole culture was very familiar to me. My friend and I were very similar in a lot of ways. Between the two of us, we literally became that one-in-two statistic that’s often cited by the CDC, and by people talking about Black gay men, and I just felt that as an HIV-negative person, I had to put some skin in the game as much as I could.
Even in the theater community—where there are fundraisers for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS—there is stigma, secrets, silence, and shame around this illness. There are some people to this day who are positive and not talking about it, in part because HIV-negative people make it impossible for them to speak up and feel protected or supported in getting the resources they need or the mental health help that they need, like my friend needed at some point in his diagnosis to feel like he was worth living. I wanted to mix all of those things up in A Strange Loop from an HIV-negative standpoint, as much as I could.
It’s been a little over a year now, and his death is the most painful thing I’ve ever been through in my life, because I feel like we all failed him in some ways. The world has failed him and people like him. There are other people like him who are positive and not taking meds and they think that they don’t deserve to live.
Sorry. That was a long rant.
JMPII: That was not a rant. What you are saying is so important. It’s the reason that I am open about my own status; to show people that there is still life after HIV.
MRJ: That’s right. I have friends who are positive and thriving, and I’ve learned so much from them. Some of them have even forced me to think about why my own sexuality is not as fully expressed as it could be, as a way of saying, “If they can do it, I can do it.” I know that sounds so Pollyannaish, but it’s true! What I want more than anything is for there to be open conversations about sexuality with Black men, because we don’t talk about it, and so much of that is ultimately connected to the history of slavery. The demonization of Black bodies and stereotyping of HIV adds another dimension to that story. I want to crash through the silence and posturing and macho bullshit to get to talking about what we actually want. There’s a lot for Black people to talk about in terms of sexuality and for the church to talk about regarding sexuality. And not just the Black church.
JMPII: It sounds like you have a whole lot more to say about it.
MRJ: There is another piece that I want to write that’s an analogue to A Strange Loop called Sex Negative. It explores the meaning of being “sex positive,” because I feel like a lot of people throw that word around, but they don’t unpack it in terms of how sexuality has become another commodity of the marketplace or how that can impact somebody on a spiritual and psychological level.
There’s a lot of sexuality that I don’t express, because of fears about HIV that I’ve had as a younger person, but also because of this feeling like my sexuality is just another thing to be sold like a capitalistic item. So what does that mean in terms of labeling someone sex negative or sex positive? Is there another conversation to be had about expressing yourself sexually in a holistic, healthy way where no one feels excluded? Can we be more inclusive sexually in a way that’s deeper than whether a white man wants you on Grindr?
In Sex Negative, I want everyone to go to a church for an orgy that literally combines spirituality and sexuality; where there’s no line between those two things. There’s no shame; it’s literally a holy thing that you also don’t have to participate in. And if you don’t participate in it, that can also be a beautiful thing.
JMPII: I already see the meta commentary of taking the body of Christ into your mouth or sharing wine from the same cup.
MRJ: Yes. It’s so sensual.
JMPII: More than exploring “sexual negativity,” what are some of the things that you want for the world?
MRJ: When my friend died, I decided, any time that I have a platform to talk about it, I want to talk about it, because he shouldn’t have died. It’s not my fault, but it’s my responsibility. It’s not our fault, but it’s our responsibility to these people, and I can’t say that loudly enough.
I am HIV negative, and I owe it to people who are HIV positive, and people who are HIV negative owe it to people who are HIV positive, to really be there and to truly see beyond our eyes for them. To understand that we as HIV-negative people are the reason why there are secrets, silence, stigmas, and shame around HIV in 2020 and 2021 and 2022.
My friend was dealing with so much by himself, because he felt he had to do it alone—and that should not be the case for anyone. Look at what’s happening now with this virus. It’s not the same as HIV, of course, but look at the people who are dying alone in their apartments or in a hospital. It’s like, our fates are totally intermingled on a global scale, and we have to act like it. HIV is not over. Being on [PrEP] doesn’t make it over, and HIV-negative people must step forward to help people who are HIV positive in whatever ways that they can.
Michael R. Jackson continues to do everything that he can to represent Black, gay, and HIV-positive lives in all of their glory through his work. In addition to winning the Pulitzer, he was also recently awarded the 2019 Hull-Warriner Award and commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum to create a virtual work. For more information about Jackson, visit thelivingmichaeljackson.com.