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Detroit native Michael R. Jackson wins big at Tony Awards for 'A Strange Loop'

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Detroit native Michael R. Jackson won big at Sunday's 75th annual Tony Awards as his musical, "A Strange Loop," nabbed best musical and he won best book for a musical. 

"A Strange Loop" beat out "MJ" and "Paradise Square" to take one of this season's top theater awards. Jackson is a 1999 graduate of Cass Technical High School.

Wearing a flowing hot pink coat over his tuxedo as he accepted his award at Radio City Music Hall, Jackson, 41, said "A Strange Loop" took 18 years to write and he penned it at a time when he felt "unseen, unheard, misunderstood."

"I just wanted to create a little bit of a life raft for myself as a Black gay man to get through the day," said Jackson, who got a standing ovation. "...There’s so much I want to say. I’m really speechless."

Michael R. Jackson, second left, accepts the award for best new musical for "A Strange Loop" at the 75th annual Tony Awards on Sunday at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

Producer Barbara Whitman thanked Jackson for sharing his words, "his music, his soul." "A Strange Loop" now is playing at New York's Lyceum Theatre. 

"None of us will ever be the same," said Whitman, who said she hopes stories like "A Strange Loop" are played on stages, all the time, going forward.

"A Strange Loop" and "Skeleton Crew," written by another Detroit native, Dominique Morisseau, were nominated for multiple Tony Awards, giving Detroit a notable presence at Sunday's ceremony, which honors the best in theater.

Renowned actress Phylicia Rashad, who won best featured actress in a play for "Skeleton Crew," thanked Morisseau for writing it. It's about a stamping plant in Detroit on the verge of closure during the Great Recession.

"Thank you very much for writing the play that only you could've written," said Rashad.

Sunday's ceremony, hosted by vibrant Academy Award winner Ariana DeBose, marked a return to normal in some ways for theater and the Tony Awards. The first ceremony back at Radio City Music Hall since COVID hit two years ago, COVID safety officers were thanked several times during the show and roughly 150 were even invited to attend.

"Our industry has been through so much. It felt at times that live theater was in danger," said Marianne Elliott, who won Best Direction of a Musical for "Company," beating out "A Strange Loop."

Coming into Sunday's show, Jackson's "A Strange Loop," was the most nominated show of the season. It was nominated for 11 awards, including best musical, best original score and best book. It lost best original score to "Six: The Musical." Jaquel Spivey, who was nominated for best leading actor in a musical, lost to Myles Frost for "MJ."

"A Strange Loop," a musical written by Detroit native Michael R. Jackson, was nominated for 11 awards at the 75th annual Tony Awards on Sunday. Jaquel Spivey, third from left, who portrays the main character in "A Strange Loop," was nominated for best actor in a musical.

"A Strange Loop," which Jackson has called "emotionally autobiographical," follows a young Black gay man named after a famous pop star, working as an usher on Broadway while writing a musical. The musical follows Usher as he navigates his own "thoughts," journeying from self-loathing toward self-acceptance.

Jackson, 41, who also has only won a Pulitzer Prize for "A Strange Loop," said representation matters but so does quality work. He encouraged other artists to continue to aim to do their best no matter what.

"We talk a lot about representation. I’m all about representation but let’s make sure we are staying on our grind," he said. "That we are doing the best work we can do...Never settle for anything less than the best you can do. Never settle. Just do your best. That’s my message to every person in this room, every artist out there. Thank you, thank you, thank you."

Jackson was one of seven Black playwrights featured this season on Broadway. DeBose said while there's still work to be done, there's been progress with more inclusion in the theater world. 

Morisseau's "A Skeleton Crew," lost the Tony for best play to "The Lehman Trilogy." It opened on Broadway in late January after being put on hold during the pandemic. 

Playwright Dominique Morisseau, second from right, a Detroit native, stands with the cast of "Skeleton Crew" along with director Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Morisseau's "Skeleton Crew" will debut on Broadway just as another one of her shows, "Ain't Too Proud," closes.

Morisseau said as she was planning out a series of Detroit-based plays around 2010, she knew she wanted one set in an auto factory. She said the auto industry "built" her family, with uncles, cousins and friends all working in plants. Her grandfather was an autoworker. 

"I hope when audiences see this play that they are just as moved and inspired by the humanity, resiliency and authenticity of Detroiters as much as I am," said Morisseau during a segment Sunday about some of the nominated playwrights. 

"A Strange Loop" broke ground in one way at Sunday's Tony Awards. Actress L Morgan Lee was the first openly trans Tony Award-nominated performer. Nominated for Featured Actress in a Musical, Lee lost to Patti LuPone.