Summer of celebration at Woolly Mammoth Theatre after ‘A Strange Loop’ Tony glory

WTOP's Jason Fraley catches up with Woolly Mammoth Theatre (Part 1)

It’s a summer of celebration at Woolly Mammoth Theatre after cultivating a show in D.C. that eventually took Broadway by storm. “A Strange Loop” earned 11 Tony nominations, including two wins for Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical at the June awards.

WTOP checked in with Woolly Mammoth Artistic Director Maria Manuela Goyanes.

“When Best Musical was announced, we’re all running up on stage, you can see me in the back double fist pumping,” Goyanes said. “I couldn’t believe it to be honest with you, because it’s 17 or 18 years in the making. There’s a part of me that goes, ‘Well, it’s about time.’ The world needed to catch up to this musical, to be open enough to hear this story.”

Goyanes met creator Michael R. Jackson decades ago when they were both in their mid-20s thanks to a professor’s introduction when he was a graduate of the NYU musical theater program.

“He needed a director to work on his projects,” Goyanes said. “He came up with the idea for this musical. He showed me a monologue that he turned into the song ‘Why I Can’t Get Work’ and started putting together the first draft of what would become ‘A Strange Loop.'”

The story follows a black, gay musical theater writer named Usher, who actually works as an usher at “The Lion King’ on Broadway. He’s writing a show about a black, gay musical theater writer, who’s writing a show about a black, gay musical theater writer — thus the “strange loop” that happens for a creative spirit who feels he doesn’t fit in.

Usher is trying to get his parents and the world “to actually accept him for who he is,” Goyanes said. “What he finds out towards the end … is that the person who has the biggest problem with the pronoun ‘I’ is him.”

The groundbreaking lyrics declare that he’s “had enough of toxic Tyler Perry, and white, gay, male tyranny, and my secret inner white girl, though she is dear to me.”

“It’s a risky piece,” Goyanes said. “He’s got an inner white girl … but he’s in a black, queer, male body.”

There’s another moment where Usher calls Beyonce a terrorist, “which makes all the black gay men say, ‘You are not somebody I want to date!'” she said, adding “He is a very specific, idiosyncratic character who has very clear opinions. … He isn’t the person who likes Tyler Perry.”

“A Strange Loop” opened Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 2019. While it made many Top 10 lists, it was sidelined by the pandemic in March 2020. During the lockdown, Woolly Mammoth reached out asking if it could host its second staging in late 2021.

“We did a nationwide casting search and found then-22-year-old Jaquel Spivey, graduating from Point Park University in Pittsburgh,” Goyanes said. “He did the audition and blew us all away.”

She pointed to the review in The Washington Post by Peter Marks, which began with the words, “Commit this name to memory: Jaquel Spivey.”

It’s safe to say we’ll all remember that name now after Tony and Pulitzer acclaim, not to mention booming box-office on Broadway, making its early D.C. supporters proud.

“The Tony statue is on its way to Woolly Mammoth!” Goyanes said. “We’re going to do an unboxing video and be able to have folks come and take a selfie with it. It’s a big deal for a theater company and we’re not a big theater company. We have a high-risk profile. Our work tends to be more edgy, risky and provocative than most mainstream venues.”

Coming up next month is “Ain’t No Mo,” which could be the next “A Strange Loop.”

“They just announced a Broadway run!” Goyanes said. “‘Ain’t No Mo’ is a brilliant show. I can’t wait for people to see it. … John Hudson Odom is coming back to play Peaches, the flight attendant for African American Airlines Flight 1619 that is on its way to Africa to bring all Black Americans back to the mother country! That is the premise of this insane show.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley catches up with Woolly Mammoth Theatre (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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