By Greg Cunningham
How school can be a sanctuary
It won a Pulitzer Prize in 2020 and two Tony awards this year. It’s winning over Broadway audiences every night. A Strange Loop is Michael R. Jackson’s semi-autobiographical story about Usher, a Black gay male playwright who works as an usher for the Lion King and is writing a musical about a Black gay male playwright who works as an usher for the Lion King. Thus begins the loop that intertwines within the complex psyche of the story arc and Usher, who not only performs in the story but narrates as well.
It’s fair to say that Jackson wanted to dig into the many stereotypes plaguing society and has no problem criticizing those who feed into them, specifically the popular and successful African American writer Tyler Perry. But in exposing the many facets of his own consciousness on stage, Jackson also exposes how inaccessible support is for young people who live in multiple minority communities.
In the play, Usher’s parents pray for his soul and fear his lifestyle will condemn him to burn eternally in hell. This portrayal is reminiscent of the church Jackson attended while growing up, playing piano at services. His parents were both employed by the church, and he felt he had to keep his sexuality secret, not only to protect himself but to protect his parents as well.
Usher touches on themes of poverty and class, responding “I’m poor” to a Lion King patron as he shows her to her seat when asked if he had seen Hamilton. Broadway is not a welcoming place for those without money, and ushers do not make the kind of salary that could admit them to top Broadway shows unless they were there to guide patrons to their seats. The economic rift between the audience and those who serve them is sharply delineated. In a recent NPR interview, Jackson recalled that he did not have any elders to look up to when he was growing up. He was surrounded by other gay Black teenagers at school, but there was no adult to help him navigate the difficult waters he was treading. It’s a stark reminder of how important educators are in the lives of their students. Students who do not find support at home, at church, or among family members should always be able to turn to adults at school to find validation for who they are.
Some students get their best– or only –meals at school. Others may be ostracized by their families or have no families at all. As we begin this school year, it is an important reminder that schools should always be sanctuaries for our students, places where they feel safe to be the person they truly are. In an interview with Fast Company, Jackson responded to critics who thought the play was a commentary only on the current state of affairs in our society:
“When it ran Off-Broadway, a writer for the New York Times wrote how “A Strange Loop” and a bunch of other works were positioned to respond to the Trump era. And I just sort of clapped back on Twitter because I was, like, Wait a minute! I started writing this during the first [George W.] Bush term! And kept working on it during the second Bush term, the first Obama term, the second Obama term, and then had my first reading at Playwright Horizons four days after Trump was elected. I don’t think you can talk about this piece in those small ways. You have to take all of it into account.”
The issues Jackson faced growing up are not new. The themes of the show transcend generations, political administrations, and even the continued evolution of society. The data show that teenagers who identify as LGBTQ continue to struggle with mental health and are three times more likely to attempt suicide. For Black LGBTQ teens, that deadly percentage more than doubles.
Jackson would no doubt agree that he was simply an actor while growing up, playing a part in his community but not really part of it. Young people have always struggled and will continue to struggle at fitting in with those around them. It’s our job as educators to ensure that all young people’s identities are affirmed and supported. A student who feels shunned or shamed at school will have scant ability to attain academic success.
Teachers have the power to help students like Jackson find their way. Right after high school, he left his hometown of Detroit and made a life for himself in New York City, barely scraping by as a theater usher until he found the courage and resources to have his first-ever play produced.
It is the hope of many that A Strange Loop will herald a whole new group of playwrights to support and encourage teens and adults who struggle to find their way. Programs like the Theatre Development Fund help make Broadway shows more accessible; but every young person in every school should have teachers ushering them into accessible, safe classrooms. They may have nowhere else to turn.
Greg Cunningham is a JFYNet Learning Specialist and a lifelong theatre buff.
Other posts authored by Greg can be found here.
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