Jaquel Spivey is redefining what it means to be a leading man on Broadway, and both critics and audiences are paying attention.
Hired shortly after graduating from Pittsburgh’s Point Park University to star in Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, A Strange Loop, the endearingly sassy 23-year-old has already won a Theatre World Award and earned nominations for this year’s Drama League and Tony Awards for his performance as Usher, a young Black artist at odds with his sexual identity, familial expectations, torturous thoughts, and desire to create original art.
Spivey spends nearly every moment of the self-proclaimed “big, Black, and queer-*ss Great American Musical” pouring his heart out as a conflicted artist trying to decide who he is and what he wants in a world that goes out of its way to remind him that he is too Black, too gay, too fat, and not hung enough to play in the big leagues. Rather than give up, or sell out by writing a dreaded “Tyler Perry gospel play,” Usher continues to push through, even if that means f*cking up and hurting everyone around him.
As embodied by Spivey ― who stepped into the role at Washington D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company after the musical’s Off-Broadway debut at Playwrights Horizons — Usher’s aching vulnerability compelled this critic to lean in and ugly-cry his heart out. That’s an essential component to making this rollickingly perverted and gut-bustlingly hilarious musical work: The performer who plays Usher has to dance his *ss off while belting Gs for Jesus, endure humiliating circumstances, and hold center focus in the middle of a crew of multi-talented scenery devourers, but he’s got to convince the audience that he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to make it through the night. Spivey dispatches that alchemic fusion of delivering God-level vocals with a disarmingly innocent gleam as if he were to the manor born.
In an interview with Queerty, Spivey discusses how he’s managing his fast ascent to Broadway stardom, what keeps him grounded, and why he refuses to stay quiet now that he’s taken center stage.
Was leading a Broadway musical how you imagined your immediate post-graduation career to proceed?
My mindset was to succeed in whatever was placed in front of me ― whether that be a regional theater in Arkansas, a national tour, or an industry reading. I didn’t want to set too many extreme goals for myself, but I’m a believer in prayer manifestation and I always said that I wanted to be the person that I didn’t get to see when I was growing up ― to be who little Jaquel was praying for every night.
I had artists that I looked up to but it wasn’t like the little Black girl that sees herself in Audra McDonald or the Black boy that sees himself in Leslie Odom Jr. [who] is a talented, physically fit, heterosexual male with a lovely wife and kids. He’s also what this industry deems to be a leading man for a Black man. But I’m a big boy, and I’m very feminine, queer, and outspoken, and I don’t move through life the way a Broadway leading man is supposed to. So I wanted to rewrite the narrative of who gets to be the lead. I’m blessed to have that opportunity.
How have you gone about creating your version of Usher ― a fictional version of playwright-composer Michael R. Jackson?
The first step was recognizing that I had to bring Jaquel to Usher in order for him to be real and so that I could relate to him. I also had to come to terms with the fact that there are parts of Usher that are very much Michael R. Jackson. Being in a relationship with both of them, I can see the differences, and it’s been very interesting to see how they relate in ways that Michael probably doesn’t see. At times, when I’m around Michael, I’m like, “Let me take that and blow it up for like 500 people.” So what might be conversational for him becomes over-the-top for Usher. Getting those nuggets from him has made Usher so real for me.
Usher faces a lot of trauma. How do you cope with embodying that pain?
During our first read and sing-through, there were some producers and members of the press in the room. It went well, but I remember feeling nervous and not proud of myself. So I called my aunt afterward and told her I thought it went okay. She told me, “This doesn’t sound like you, and I’m going to tell you right now: Leave that man at the theatre. Whatever it is, don’t bring it home. You find ways to cope because that’s not you.” She went in on my life! And it was so necessary because for a moment I lost myself in Usher.
I had to tell myself not to take on all of Usher’s pain. Often after a show, I take time to meditate and pray in my dressing room before I leave the theatre. I also have someone I’m talking to who helps me stay emotionally and mentally healthy. I didn’t have that in DC, but I knew this run was going to be longer and that I had to take care of myself and bring Jaquel back at the end of each show.
Is the show becoming more manageable now that the show has officially opened?
Yes, but I also think the show was made to feel like hell. There is no intermission, time to go to the bathroom, or to rest. It’s just adrenaline. I’m learning to navigate, but it’s like running a marathon every single time.
Were you always aware of the importance of mental wellness?
Yes, but I wasn’t taking care of myself.
I knew what I was up against all four years of college. I was about to enter an industry where one flaw was 20 times worse for me because my body jiggles and my skin is dark. If my white straight male classmates had a voice crack, no one would pay it any attention. But I was like, I can’t have my voice crack because I’ll look like I’m not as good. I’m glad that I learned that because it’s also Usher’s battle. It’s an ongoing battle.
Considering that we know that this world wasn’t necessarily built for you, how did you gain the courage to put yourself forward for this opportunity?
I think we all have moments where we look in the mirror and are like, “Damn bitch! If I was somebody else, I would hump you!” But we also have those moments where it’s like, “Ooh, girl! Go back and comb that sh*t again! Fix that eyelash!”
I think for me, I put myself forward because I grew up in a household of Black women, and none of them are under 200 pounds ― and none of them ever left the house with a sad face that I saw. I saw confident Black women who loved their bodies and didn’t hide themselves. These are also the same Black women who didn’t ask me to take my shirt off at the beach. They pulled it off me and said, “Are you going out and having fun? Don’t worry about it.”
And if they caught anyone staring, it was nothing for them to get up and cuss everyone out. To this day, they are those women, and I owe them so much because I didn’t have a man or a father to do it. But I had these women who stepped into that role. They constantly told me, “You a bad b*tch” ― without those words. It was, “You’re handsome.” They always hyped me up.
And when I was finding myself and starting relationships on the apps and hookup culture and all that sh*t, I figured out that the most love I could get from anybody would have to come from me. And the sooner I got that, the easier walking in this body became.
How does it feel to be an ambassador for people who’ve been told they don’t belong?
I don’t feel like an ambassador to anyone because I don’t want anyone to look at me and think that I don’t have struggles. Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and say, “B*tch, you need to lose your titties.”
But I’m thankful that I can meet people and give them a hug and say, “You’re beautiful. Beyond this, I don’t want to be your savior. I don’t want to be the reason that you feel confident. I want you to be the reason. I want you to take all of that glory for how you feel. Don’t give it to me. Don’t give it to anyone else. This is a reward that you deserve.”
When I went to the Met Gala, the craziest thing for me was to see all these people on television pick themselves apart in the hallway. They looked fabulous, but I was watching them with such disappointment in their faces while they looked in the mirrors. That taught me that self-love means everything.
Besides the Broadway contract, what motivates you to get out of bed when you’re not feeling it?
The thing that gets me together is little Jaquel. He’s always with me. He’s a reminder that if I don’t get my *ss up and make something of the day, there’s another soul that’s going to be lost. There’s a little heart that’s not going to be inspired.
The Instagram likes and being at the Met were nice, but yesterday, after the show, someone told me that after seeing the performance, they came out to their family. And it meant so much that someone was able to see my truth and to then live in theirs. I come from a family of AME pastors and reverends, and they always say, “I just need to save one soul, and I’ve done my job.” I may not be in nobody’s church, but I’m in a theatre full of people. And if I can help one person, I’ve done my damn job. Especially if it helps an insecure person step into their purpose. That’s what gets me going. The check helps.
Because the money is good!
Let’s be honest! Because this is a business!
My favorite moment of the show is Usher’s monologue about elevating Black bodies and Black lust and turning away from using white bodies to give Black love meaning. Are there moments wherein you feel like, “This is definitely me speaking right now”?
Oh, hell yeah. That whole damn show. There are so many moments. Can we just call a spade a spade right now? There’s something about this industry and being a Black actor where it’s almost expected for you to have a white man on your arm. I ain’t trying to ruffle no feathers, but to be honest, I have seen interracial couples after the show. And because of that monologue, I will usually see the Black male look at me with just a little bit of shade in the eye.
And I don’t want anyone to feel attacked or to go home and break up with their mate. But I do want them to listen to this perspective instead of shutting it out and to try to understand. I don’t want you to pass judgment; you can do that after it’s over. I hope people are opening up to A Strange Loop.
Usher talks his sh*t; Jaquel gets to talk his sh*t; Michael’s been talking his sh*t ― and I think all of us have a right to do so because almost everybody has had room to speak for years. But now, the voice that people don’t know how to handle is coming from a Black guy. I like that our having a voice makes people uncomfortable. Because the only big person we’ve had before is Monique calling people “skinny b*tches.” But we’ve never really had a man stand in his big Black body and mean what he said. And you know? I live for it every night.
To that point, I’ve never seen a big man speak up without being treated like a joke, even when he’s spitting straight-up facts.
We’ve had that with our audiences laughing during harsh moments. I’m sure it was a mix of feeling uncomfortable, but it’s also a mix of, “You didn’t get it. You came to this show to be entertained, and anything that I do will make you laugh because you didn’t come with the intention of taking us seriously.”
That hurts, but it also reminds me why I do this job. Because when you’re laughing, there are 10 to 12 other people around you looking and wondering why the hell you are. And I can see you feeling uncomfortable because now the theatre is staring at you because you just laughed at the end of some being sexually violated. It’s an interesting show to do in front of strangers.
There were so many Black shows that have come and gone this year, and now for colored girls… has announced that it’s closing early ― I pray that the industry doesn’t contradict itself and stop pushing for these stories next year. Let’s not go back to doing revivals. Let’s keep this sh*t going. If we don’t, some of us have work to do to find better places to tell stories.
A Strange Loop plays at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre.