Why did the Tonys Reward A STRANGE LOOP This Year, But Not SLAVE PLAY Last Year?
Act I: Humiliation
Before I discuss this year’s Tony Awards—and the triumphant yet precarious success that the musical A Strange Loop found there by winning Best Book of a Musical and Best Musical—I want to discuss the difficult process of watching last year’s Tony Awards.
When I saw Jeremy O. Harris’s play on Broadway in 2019, it changed my life. As a queer, biracial, Virginian man, I had never before seen my experiences in interracial relationships reflected back to me so specifically and rawly. “This is the type of play that I want to see more of,” I thought to myself for months after seeing the show. “This is the type of theatre I want to champion.”
I really hoped that Tony voters shared my enthusiasm for Slave Play’s bold experiment. I mean, the show had 12 nominations! Even if the show didn’t win some of the bigger awards, I thought I might be able to treasure the speeches of scenic designer Clint Ramos or featured actor Ato Blankson-Wood as they took to the stage.
I was in for a rude awakening. Slave Play ended up empty-handed that night, not winning a single award. As I watched the ceremony adding up Slave Play loss after loss, humiliation writhed within me. It felt like a slap in the face. “This is not the type of play we want to see more of,” it seemed like the entire Broadway community was telling me. “This is not the type of theatre we even want to see, much less champion.”
Don’t mistake my disappointment with ignorance. I know that awards shows are highly political. However, last year’s Tony Awards were a chance to celebrate Black queer contributions to theatre. Instead, voters chose to reward plays that focused on white characters (The Inheritance) and already beloved classics (A Christmas Carol). There was no award given to any play that truly challenged the status quo.
Act II: Possibilities
The American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League (the organizations that run the Tonys) might never fully acknowledge voters’ refusal to award Black queerness last year, but it has made a few feeble attempts at course correction.
This past January, Tony Awards voters were told they must complete unconscious bias training in order to vote for any awards. The 2021-2022 Broadway season made headlines for opening with primarily Black shows, but you wouldn’t know that looking at this year’s Best Play nominations. Only two of those Black shows (Clyde’s and Skeleton Crew) were recognized.
Another attempt at course correction was having Ariana DeBose (a queer Afro-Latina actress who recently won an Oscar for West Side Story) host this year. In her opening speech, DeBose stated that “...while we have not solved all of our problems, I feel like the phrase ‘Great White Way’ is becoming more of a nickname, as opposed to a how-to guide.” Still, these words rang somewhat hollow for an awards ceremony that only gave awards to four people of color (Phylicia Rashad, Michael R. Jackson, Myles Frost, and Joaquina Kalukango) on the ceremony’s CBS telecast.
If there was one place where this year’s Tony Awards had the opportunity to provide real course correction, it was to award the queer Black talent in Michael R. Jackson’s musical A Strange Loop. With eleven Tony noms, A Strange Loop was the most nominated production of the season.
A Strange Loop and Slave Play have a lot in common. Both shows are working in the tradition of playwright Adrienne Kennedy, staging identity in explicit and, at times, terrifying ways. They also frankly address sex and disease. Slave Play tackles the potential “virus” that is unchecked attraction to whiteness. A Strange Loop does the same while also exploring the still-raging pandemic of HIV/AIDS within the Black community.
Both plays changed my life. When I listened to A Strange Loop’s off-Broadway cast recording back in 2019, it felt like someone was finally saying all of the things I had been unable to for years. Seeing the show’s pre-Broadway run in D.C. at the end of 2021, I felt the same theatrical euphoria and devastation I felt watching Slave Play. The shows foreground Black queerness in their narratives, providing a space for queer people of color like myself to see their lives represented onstage.
Heading into this year’s Tony Awards, I couldn’t help but wonder if history would repeat itself and if A Strange Loop would be completely shut out at the awards ceremony. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.
There are simple explanations for why A Strange Loop won two Tonys and Slave Play did not. A Strange Loop is a Pulitzer Prize-winner, a musical, and a show that opened after the COVID-19 pandemic (all things that Slave Play wasn’t). But in my eyes, there are three more complex reasons why A Strange Loop succeeded at the Tonys where Slave Play did not:
1. Internal vs. External Depictions of Black Characters
While Slave Play and A Strange Loop both include honest dialogues about how race influences sex, they present these conversations differently. Slave Play displays these conversations externally, while A Strange Loop is instead staging these conversations within the mind of its protagonist.
Slave Play thrives in the ambiguity of why its Black characters are so attracted to their white partners. Is it because of internalized racism? An undiagnosed disease? The legacies of slavery? Harris never directly answers these questions, instead obliquely letting the audience make up their minds for themselves. A Strange Loop, however, dives far more internally into the mind of its Black characters. In songs like “Boundaries,” Michael R. Jackson lays out exactly what self-harming tendencies lead Usher to submit himself to masochistic sex with white men.
This key difference between Slave Play and A Strange Loop has had varying receptions within segments of the Black community. Some of my Black colleagues found the ambiguities in Slave Play frustrating. Harris’s distanced treatment of Black sexuality made the Black characters onstage feel, at best, confusing to understand, at worst, incomprehensible. Many preferred A Strange Loop’s engagement with sex, and how A Strange Loop worked to explicitly map out its Black characters’ psychologies.
While I understand these critiques of Slave Play, I personally find the ambiguities of Slave Play’s text to be enthralling. I also recognize the same sort of distanced portrayal of sexuality in Slave Play’s white characters (why they are attracted to their Black partners also remains a mystery). If A Strange Loop offers more of a haven for Black theatregoers than Slave Play did, I understand why A Strange Loop won at the Tonys when Slave Play did not.
2. Targets of Satire
Another thing that unites both Slave Play and A Strange Loop is their use of hyper-specific satire. Each play has different reference points that they’re making fun of, which may lead to different receptions, particularly amongst white audience members.
Although Slave Play centers Black characters in its narrative, in many ways it’s a satire of white culture and politics. Harris makes fun of Yale, Starbucks, barre method, and gentrifying neighborhoods. The playwright is also holding up a mirror to the ugliness that whiteness entails, including white privilege, ignorance, failure of empathy, and violence against Black peers. It’s such a horrifying vision that many white audience members may feel uncomfortable watching the show. One woman, dubbed “Talkback Tammy,” told Jeremy O. Harris during a Q&A that his play is “racist against white people,” a ludicrous comment that mistakes portraying specific white characters for stereotyping.
A Strange Loop is also a satire of culture and politics. Songs like “Inner White Girl” skewer privilege according to their race and gender, and A Strange Loop pokes fun at things like Hamilton, Grindr, and white feminism. Talkback Tammies will not immediately identify themselves with anyone onstage, however, since there are no white actors in A Strange Loop. This allows for a level of emotional distance for white audience members. Additionally, the majority of A Strange Loop’s satirical targets are Black, such as the Chitlin’ Circuit, which many white audience members might not even recognize.
Thus, even though A Strange Loop is a radical show, it may read as more “palatable” to audience members than Slave Play does.
3. Wildly Different Endings
The final factor that allowed A Strange Loop to triumph at the Tonys when Slave Play didn’t are the endings of each show.
Slave Play ends with a violent sex scene between a Black woman and white man, one that is ambiguous in its portrayal of desire and consent. By ending his show this way, Harris forces Slave Play’s audience into witnessing what was commonplace on Virginian plantations for hundreds of years. Harris, like Adrienne Kennedy, leaves his audience in a galling, vulnerable place, making them walk out of the theater afterwards in a daze of pain and sorrow.
Although A Strange Loop has a similar scenes of sexual anguish, Jackson ends his show on a note of hope. The show’s protagonist finds that nothing in his life has fundamentally changed, but his outlook on life has. In the musical’s final song, Usher decides to “let this agony be [his] greatest gift,” and in doing so, he finds peace with himself.
Throughout Jackson’s semi-autobiographical musical, Usher’s dream is to get the musical he’s working on to the Great White Way. Watching the end of A Strange Loop, Broadway audiences realize that they’re watching Usher’s (and Jackson’s) dream realized, and it’s an incredibly poignant end to an uproarious show.
I’m not here to make judgments about which end is better, but the Tony Awards have typically been drawn to awarding shows that, though tragic, still have notes of grace at the end (see: Dear Evan Hansen or Hadestown). A Strange Loop fits into this trend, which helped the show win Best Musical while Slave Play’s horrifying afterglow contributed to it not winning Best Play.
Act III: Prizes
Instead of watching the Tony Awards live this year, I went to see a Phoebe Bridgers concert (the singer-songwriter is, as A Strange Loop puts it, one of my “inner white girls”). Going to that concert let me skip out on four hours of nail-biting anxiety, wondering if the Tonys would reward a totally deserving Black queer artist instead of ignoring him. I already did that last year, and didn’t want to relive it again.
Tony voters missed an opportunity to award a Black queer vanguard of theatre when they didn’t give Jeremy O. Harris and Slave Play any awards. I’m tempted to say that this year, the Tonys have now redeemed themselves by awarding another Black queer vanguard of theatre with Michael R. Jackson and A Strange Loop. But do the Tonys really need to redeem themselves? Or should people of color like myself simply stop looking to awards shows for recognition at all?
There have been times in Tony Awards history when groundbreaking works were recognized. I’m still astounded that Fun Home, a queer show which explores both coming-of-age and suicide, won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2015*. It was one of the rare times in Tonys history, and even awards history, that a queer piece of drama was given such a lauded platform to be celebrated.
I’m so glad that A Strange Loop won Best Musical, which will certainly help the show attract a large audience on Broadway. However, moments of queer celebration at awards ceremonies always feel like exceptions to long-standing histories of not awarding queer work. This is especially true for queer work by Black artists.
When I think about awards shows nowadays, I’m reminded of some words that the queer Black character Gary says in Slave Play when he feels like his white peers aren’t treating him properly: “I’ve given myself over / to someone who doesn’t dignifiy me / who acts like [they’re] the prize / and I’m the lucky recipient. / No, motherfucker, I’m the prize. / Always have been, always will be.”
The fact that both Slave Play and A Strange Loop exist at all, and that they’ve been able to shape the course of my life, is its own prize. It always has been, it always will be. Whether or not the Tony Awards choose to dignify these Black queer works, and give them awards, says more about the institutions and less about the quality of these towering works of art.
*Editors Note: A previous version of this article misstated the year Fun Home won the Tony Award for Best Musical. It won in 2015, not 2014.