How the Creators of ‘A Strange Loop’ Set the Literal Stage for the Tony-Winning Musical

Playwright Michael R. Jackson and scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado discuss how the team brought to life the onstage environments for the critically acclaimed Broadway show.
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A hazy, yellow glow passes through a small window with timeworn blinds to illuminate the cramped corner of a New York City apartment, where a keyboard with a Liz Phair CD prominently displayed in the music sheet holder is surrounded by cardboard boxes labeled "Student Loans Shit" and the like. This is where Usher, the protagonist of A Strange Loop, sits down to write his "big, Black, queer-ass, American Broadway show," surrounded by his incessant, self-critical thoughts. 

Michael R. Jackson’s meta musical—which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2020 and led this year’s Broadway awards-season race with 11 Tony nominations, taking home the award for Best New Musical and Best Book of a Musical on Sunday night—follows the interior life of Usher: a young, Black, queer man who begrudgingly works as an usher for a Broadway production of The Lion King and spends his free time writing a musical about a young, Black, queer, man writing a musical, and so on. 

The audacious production presents, in vivid detail, Usher’s internal logic and chaos as he grapples with his self-image, informed in part by his religious, homophobic, Tyler Perry–obsessed parents, as well as a bigoted, fatphobic "white gaytriarchy." The rest of the cast is comprised of six Thoughts that represent everything from Sexual Ambivalence to Daily Self-Loathing, who pop in and out of Usher’s subconscious to heckle him about his body, professional success, and financial stability, sometimes even transforming into Usher’s parents, or figures like James Baldwin and Harriet Tubman.

In a Zoom conversation with A Strange Loop creator Michael R. Jackson and scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado ahead of last night’s win, we discussed how the eye-catching onstage environments were conceptualized for the show. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.  

Dwell: A Strange Loop brings us into Usher’s internal universe from both a physical and psychological perspective; we see his inner thoughts play out on stage as he moves through his everyday external environments. Was the goal for the set design to establish these interior and exterior worlds?

Michael R. Jackson: Well, I’ll just start off by saying, I had no idea what the set should look like at all. I put the bare minimum for stage directions—everything inside the initial draft was just sort of a suggestion of a place, like the subway. I wish I could say I gave the Tennessee Williams version where it was pages and pages of the colors and textures and smells of what’s inside of Usher’s mind. But I just figured, we’re in Usher’s mind, so we can kind of be wherever we need to be. 

Arnulfo Maldonado: I loved that the locations were purposely so vague. For something like A Strange Loop that lives so much in Usher’s head, it was important that the thoughts—because they’re sort of the foundation of the show—feel like they can seamlessly come in and out. So, leaning into the sparseness and restraint of the design was really important, at least for the first, like, three quarters of the show.

What was really helpful was to sit down with Michael and just start from a place of context. This musical isn’t autobiographical, it’s very self-referential, but even thinking about the line where the doctor tells Usher: "You’re a young gay living in the big city!" Like, what does that actually mean? And what does it mean for someone that’s struggling as a creative person? Seeing Michael’s photos of his writing setup in his old apartment helped unlock for me those little pockets of detail that fill in this black void. 

A Strange Loop premiered Off Broadway in 2019 at Playwrights Horizons in New York City and had another pre-Broadway production at Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in Washington, D.C. (pictured above). The critically acclaimed musical by Michael R. Jackson opened on Broadway in April 2022 at the Lyceum Theater. 

In the show, there are scenes set inside Usher’s cramped New York City apartment, and also in the living room of his family home. Why was it important to show these spaces in particular?

AM: I mean, Usher’s creative space was his bedroom, meaning it’s the place where he sleeps and probably eats and also writes. The visual picture had to be pretty contained within that one frame of the brick apartment unit, so we crammed in as much as we could. Obviously the central piece is the keyboard—we needed to clock that he’s creating and writing whenever he’s not working at the theater. 

And to me, the family house, especially the first floor, is a time capsule of a lot of things that stem from Usher’s childhood. There’s a lot of ’90s nostalgia sprinkled throughout. There’s also religious iconography that meets with, you know, plastic Pizza Hut cups that the family probably got at a dinner and they’ve just kept in the rotation of dishes they use. So we get glimpses of the history of Usher in terms of that world. 

So that’s why in particular, like, all the banker boxes that we see in his apartment that help house his thoughts and ideas and receipts...there are parts of him that he probably carried from early childhood. You know, were there banker boxes in his childhood home, and now that’s his system for how he operates and organizes things as a young adult? It’s sort of like that Wizard of Oz thing where there are certain details you pick out in the set early on that make their way into the bigger dream sequence toward the end.

What were your some of your favorite set details that audience members might not have noticed?

MJ: I mean, this is like, so, so small, but on the back of one of the doors in Usher’s family home is a photo from Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns...I don’t know that anybody would notice it, but when I saw it, I was like: Oh my God, that’s so great.

AM: Yeah. In the two-story set there are definitely a lot of nods to Tyler Perry. I took cues from looking at a lot of actual Tyler Perry theater productions to create that gospel play set. Then also, it depends on where you’re sitting, but there’s lots of pornography in Usher’s apartment, which is another facet of Usher, and just the reality of him as a queer Black man, too. But it was Michael’s idea to add the Liz Phair CD in the apartment. That’s a nice little rich detail that, if you’re clocking it, it’s like: Oh, that immediately puts me in his mindset. Right.

Interesting! Michael, were there ever times you felt like certain details or aspects of the set design didn’t fit the narrative?

MJ: Um, I was on board with it all, to be honest with you [laughs]. Like, I was so impressed by Arnulfo and [director] Steven Brackett’s design, especially once it got to the gospel plan. It actually helped me continue working because I realized what I was working up to visually. 

Okay, so as two creative people, where do you each go to seek inspiration? What do you need from the space where you produce your work, wherever that may be?

AM: I have a studio in New York City where I primarily work out of and build a lot of the sets for shows. But in terms of creative process, and in particular for this show, I found that when I was starting to work and gather visuals, it was really a lot of me just walking around the city and taking pictures. I remember taking a picture of an apartment building that had a glowing purple light and I sent it to Steven and I was like, I think this would be Usher’s apartment. And then I just remember revisiting a lot of the places that I, as a young gay man, visited when I first moved to New York, but also looking at it through the lens of Usher.

MJ: This particular year has been a little crazy because I’ve been doing a lot of traveling. Most of the time I’m writing literally from this room, my office in my apartment. But over the last year, because I’ve been in a lot of different residencies, one place that was really great for me was the Hermitage Artist Retreat in Florida. It’s a beach house that’s right on the ocean in the Gulf of Mexico. I just found that when I was there, I was very creative. That expanse was really helpful. 

Top photo by Marc J Franklin

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