In 1926 two important essays on Black art were published. One, W. E. B. Du Bois’s Criteria of Negro Art, asserted that the Black artist must always write with the liberation of Black people in mind. Provocatively, Du Bois said that all Black art must be propaganda. The other, Langston Hughes’s The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, encouraged his fellow artists to embrace the idea of being “Negro artists” rather than seeking some elusive status of being simply artists. He claimed for his own generation a willingness to be their full selves rather than concerned about respectable assimilation.
I thought about both pieces after seeing Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop on Broadway two weeks ago. A Strange Loop won the Tony Award this year for Best Musical, and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. It has been widely acclaimed, and appropriately so; it is masterfully written. Usher, the lead, who is based on Jackson himself, is a 20-something Black gay man who works as an usher in a Broadway theater while working on his own play, the one we are seeing. (It is meta, as the kids say.) His fellow characters are, most of the time, the hypercritical voices that live in his head, though sometimes they morph into other people in his life: parents, colleagues, audience members, and lovers. This slippage is important to the play. We know that these other voices, when they’re coming from inside his head, are unreliable judges of Usher and his work. The homophobia of the world is distorting and destructive, and it overdetermines everything he tries to do and what he hears. Mean words echo. They live inside him. And he struggles to emancipate himself from them when they just keep coming.