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The mogul is pilloried throughout the show, as the main character, Usher, first rejects an assignment to ghostwrite a gospel play for Perry and then blows up the concept by creating caricatures of Perry characters in a family drama, complete with a gospel chorus singing “AIDS is God’s punishment.” Jackson said he’s spoken on the phone with Perry and maintains a “cute, little relationship” with him, but is not sure he’ll want to come see that.
“I told him, ‘If it’s gonna stress you out, don’t come,’” Jackson told the audience at a talkback held after the show Tuesday and hosted by Trevor Noah.
Outside of the Perry storyline, the musical centers on Usher, as he struggles to write about his life and incorporate the complexities of his identity into a “big, Black, and queer” Broadway show. His writing process is complicated by his own intrusive thoughts, which are brought to life on stage by an ensemble of six actors.
The musical opened on Broadway in April 2022 and is now scheduled to end its run Jan. 15. As that date nears, Jaquel Spivey, who has been playing Usher since the musical’s pre-Broadway tryout in 2021, said he’s learned to lean more into the uncertain fate of his character.
Spivey said he used to believe Usher had reached a definitive resolution at the end of the musical, in a moment which sees him finally embrace some of his imperfections and appear to finish the musical he’s been trying to write. But now, Spivey said he wants to leave the question of his character’s success more open-ended.
“I want the audience at the end of the show to wonder what happens next. I don’t want you to think he’s made up his mind,” Spivey said.
A large part of this pivot came after Spivey learned to separate the show, which won the 2022 Tony Award for best musical, from its accolades, and the character of Usher from Jackson. The latter, who shares several biographical traits with the lead character, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama A Strange Loop, which had made the character’s success seem inevitable.
“I honestly had to take Michael out of the equation after a long time. Like what happens if he doesn’t win the Pulitzer? What happens if he’s not nominated for a Grammy? He’s still worth it. What happens if people don’t like the show? He still has worth,” said Spivey, who was Tony-nominated for his role.
The open-endedness is part of the reason Noah, who said he has seen the show four times, keeps reutrning.
“Every single time I come, I feel like I’m focusing on something different and there’s a different part of the play that almost gets revealed to me,” Noah said. “It is radical. It is layered. It is complicated.”
And that’s the conceit Jackson said he’s tried to create, in a show that takes on themes such as religion and homophobia, racism, colorism and body shaming within the gay community and Black male identity. The process of seeing this character express himself on stage has not been exactly “freeing” for Jackson, but he said it has been a validating artistic experience to see the show continue to draw in audiences and provide different interpretations.
“For me to be able to come back to it and see that it’s still working, that it’s still playing itself out, that feels most exciting to me,” Jackson said.
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