Michael R. Jackson’s Big Broadway Thriller

“No, no, no,” Jackson squealed.

“I won’t say that out loud, but tell me I’m wrong,” Feather Kelly said, grinning.

“I won’t tell you you’re wrong,” Jackson replied, cackling.

The most interesting comparison Jackson identified was between himself and Tyler Perry, whose artistic work seems to exist at the opposite end of the spectrum from the playwright’s: Perry is a multimillionaire who boasts about producing films in five days, and Jackson, who is not wealthy, spent 20 years working on one project. In his dramedies, Perry often features Black archetypes without complicating them — the stalwart matriarch (exemplified in his Madea character); the “strong Black woman,” usually portrayed as unhappily lonely; the relative addicted to crack cocaine; the closeted gay Black man. Many of his gospel plays, TV shows and films feature a consistent message about the power of prayer.

Perry’s work is referenced a few times in “A Strange Loop,” as a paragon of commercial success and an object of Usher’s ridicule. In one of the show’s most biting, farcical numbers, “Tyler Perry Writes Real Life,” Thoughts masquerading as notable Black historical figures like Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston and someone called “Twelve Years a Slave” castigate him for disliking Perry’s work. Eventually, though, Usher relents to a Thought playing his agent and ghostwrites the ridiculously derivative gospel play, “Show Me How to Pray,” for Perry.

Perry’s stage plays were a staple for Jackson’s mother, who’s still a fan — “If Tyler does it, she’s on it,” he told me. He always felt that Perry’s work wasn’t for him but really started to reject it after watching the 2013 film “Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor,” in which a young woman contracts H.I.V. after a period of sexual exploration. Jackson has loved ones who died of AIDS (“A Strange Loop” is dedicated to “all those Black gay boys I knew who chose to go on back to the Lord”) and knows other people still managing the illness. He found the film toxic and stigmatizing. Still, although Jackson thinks Perry’s work is “intellectually lazy,” he values the joy his Madea films and stage plays bring to his mother and other family members.

One day in late February, Jackson and I sat down in the conference room of his production office to watch “A Madea Homecoming,” Perry’s latest Netflix feature, which premiered only days before. We could hardly get from one scene to the next without pausing the film to unpack some narrative error or slapdash prop. “These wigs are terrible … I mean, and consistently terrible … he just does not give a damn about the wig work,” Jackson said, with an air of resignation. “I wonder, do any of the actors think this is dumb, or are they all just excited to be there because it’s Tyler?” he asked.

Although he lambastes what he calls Perry’s “simple-minded hack buffoonery,” he also worries he might be capable of something like it, deep down. While working on a horror film for A24, Jackson told me, he compiled a list of his fears to share with the film’s producers Ari Aster and Lars Knudsen. “This film is about my fears, and so I have to write all of them down. Even if those things don’t make it into the movie, they will be in the subtext of it.” One of his fears is that he’s not as advanced as he thinks he is, and that he might not be insulated from the kind of artistic foibles he criticizes Perry for. “Sometimes I worry that I’m a coon. That I think I’m this progressive, freethinking blah blah blah, but really I’m just a coon.” Jackson was referring to a worry shared by many introspective Black people that they are inadvertently performing for a white gaze. “Freedom starts in here,” he said, and pointed to his temple. “I don’t want to live in fear. I can’t live like that. I don’t have a man at home to hug up with. I have to wake up every day alone in my bed and get up out of bed and make something happen for myself. I don’t have generational wealth, I don’t have all this stuff, which means if I want to live, I have to be free.”

He can even allow himself to embrace the little overlap that exists between him and Perry. Jackson, too, aspires to a kind of populism. “For me, I’m always trying to mix high and low, Black, white, whatever. That’s sort of what I’m interested in is like, everyone is invited to come into this. The piece can be as entertaining as it is intellectually challenging.” Of Perry, he said, adjusting his glasses, “To me, he’s like a right-wing artistic populism, and I’m more of a left-wing artistic populism. I think. I think. I’m making this up,” he finished, cautiously. “A Madea Homecoming” and its ilk make him “want to double down on what I’m doing, in trying to make art that is Black and nuanced and that doesn’t have sacred cows, that’s emotional, that’s intellectual, that’s silly, that’s all the things.”

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