During his first-ever Broadway curtain call, a teary Jaquel Spivey was overcome with emotion as he and his castmates received a standing ovation. There had been times when the young star of “A Strange Loop” wasn’t sure he had what he took to play the demanding part. But there he was on the evening of April 14, finally taking his first Broadway bow after a tryout run in Washington, months of rehearsals and a series of Covid-related delays that postponed the start of preview performances by a week.
Reflecting on his performance the next morning, he said, he had an epiphany during one of the last songs. “It almost felt like my moment of realization that I’m worthy to perform for a Broadway audience,” he said. “It just hit me like a ton of bricks: I deserve to be an actor — I deserve to be a leading actor. I deserve to be here.”
When Spivey graduated last May from Point Park University, in Pittsburgh, little did he know that his first professional acting role would be in such a high-profile, Pulitzer Prize-winning work.
Now, at 23, Spivey is making his Broadway debut in Michael R. Jackson’s brutally frank, searingly funny musical, which is scheduled to open April 26 at the Lyceum Theater. He portrays Usher, who “wants to show what/It’s like to live up here/And travel the world in a/Fat, Black queer body.” It’s a role that requires him to remain onstage during a picaresque 100-minute-long trip through his character’s thoughts and fantasies.
The young actor, who majored in musical-theater, learned he had gotten the part back in July, during a video call with Jackson and Stephen Brackett, the show’s director. Brackett, who had directed the Off Broadway premiere, at Playwrights Horizons in 2019, was about to stage a fall production at Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington. (According to a publicist for the show, Larry Owens, who played Usher in New York, had decided to pursue screen opportunities.)
The Washington production was advertised as being headed to Broadway. Theater history is literate with empty promises, but no one was surprised when this one actually came true.
I first chatted with Spivey in November, after what he described as his “first full run, no-stopping of the show” in DC “Prior to today, it was really me questioning, ‘Can I handle it?’” he said. “Because it’s a monster of a role — it’s a monster of a show.”
So, how did he handle it? Over the following months, he discussed his doubts, hopes and joys in a series of phone and Zoom calls. The last one was on April 15, just after the first Broadway preview. Here are edited excerpts from our conversations.
How It All Started
I’m originally from little old Raleigh, North Carolina. There wasn’t too much theater so I found it through musical movies, like “Dreamgirls” and “Annie.”
Some family foolishness happened, and I had to move to New Jersey. Singing was my thing, in church and everything, and I loved watching theater on YouTube, but there was really no access — a single mom who’s trying to take care of a family can’t get to voice lessons, can’t get to the acting class. My aunt, who I ended up living with, put me into some classes my junior year of high school in Montclair, New Jersey. People were like, “You should really look into this as a major.” And I was like, “People go to college for this?”
I got to play Louis in “Sunday in the Park With George” in college. I felt good about getting it because I never saw myself as being one to do a Sondheim show. It was one of those first moments where it was, “In my overweight Black body, I can still create and play whatever.”
[Looking for post-college roles, Spivey felt he had limited options.]
The typical audition would be the genie in “Aladdin” but it’s like, “Well, I can’t do a cartwheel and I don’t want to shave my head so maybe let’s find something else.” [laughs] So it was a big fear.
‘Pressure on Myself’
The first time we spoke Spivey had just completed the first full run-through of the show ahead of the fall production at Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington.
By the time we got to the end of the first number in our first stumble-through, I was like, “Five, five, please, give us five!” I’ve put the pressure on myself as an overweight person in a leading role in a musical to not allow my voice or my physical stamina to hinder my performance or anyone else’s. There are things that I have to do physically to make sure that I can deliver the songs without being out of breath, that I can get through a performance with a smile rather than say, “Oh, God, please.”
There is this component of Usher’s sexuality versus his upbringing in a religious Black family that I very much relate to. I come from a family of reverends and pastors, and then here comes my little gay self. Usher is a mama’s boy who has a very triggering and traumatizing relationship with his mother, and that was spot-on me. But while there are a lot of similarities between Jaquel Spivey and Usher, I want to make it clear that we’re not the same.
Taking the Journey With Usher
The day after the first preview in Washington, Spivey reflected on the experience of performing before an audience.
Toward the end of the show, after I’ve gone through hell and back, there’s this line that pretty much says “All these people” — pointing to the audience — “they want to know when they can go home, and we do too .” I always thought of it as, you told these people this horrific story with some funny moments, and they want to leave and they want to take this show with them but not carry the difficulty. And they laughed, and it just brought this little light bulb in my head of, “There are still people who don’t understand this lifestyle or this way of living as an overweight, queer Black man, and how the things that you deem funny are the things that break our hearts.”
One thing that really stood out was that I really understood how much power I had over this audience. It’s one thing for the audience to take the journey with you and another to listen to people moan and groan and sigh and go, “Oh no” and “Damn!” They took the journey with my Usher in my good moments and in my bad moments.
My voice was very tired yesterday. We’ve been singing every day, Usher’s notes are very high. I spent the day trying to rescue it but still rehearse. But as soon as we got onstage and I could hear the people behind me, I am going to say it was God mixed with adrenaline mixed with the love of the people in the room, but the notes soared out and the choreography — I don’ don’t think we’ve ever danced that hard. I’m hoping that we get audiences that keep giving us that kind of energy.
They Want More
The show announced an extension of its DC production, and Spivey was beginning to sound like a theater veteran.
There’s something so human and so real about this show that it takes off the pressure to be perfect — the point is, he’s not perfect. That’s really been a big epiphany: I don’t have to be as perfect as we’re taught to be in musical-theater school. If my voice is tired that day, Usher’s voice is tired.
Certain scenes require me to sing out of anger, out of pain, out of anxiety, and it’s hard to sing those things with people around me. Like, I’m violated on a twin bed and it’s hard to think of vocal technique because I have an actor on top of me.
Opening night of this show was the first time that my mother has seen me perform, ever. For her to see me do the things I’m doing onstage, but also to see others react to what I’m doing — I think was very new for her. We still haven’t discussed how she feels about the show. I’m sure in due time we will.
I found that pineapple juice is better than water to carry me through the performance, just to keep the phlegm out from crying but also to keep the stamina to get me from one scene to the next. So we’ve kind of pushed water out of the equation and brought in pineapple juice.
We’ve always seen the skinny pretty ingenue and the buff, tall leading man with the baritone voice. It’s rare that we’ve seen this fat Black guy who is not what you expect from a Black person or a Black man onstage. It’s like, “Who are you? What are you? I think I’m rooting for you because I want you to win. But also, you have to prove yourself to me.”
After learning that “A Strange Loop” was going to Broadway, we talked about the significance of the announcement.
I was in a good amount of shock, but I’m also actively choosing not to put on the added pressure of Broadway because I feel that we can tell stories anywhere — I told stories in North Carolina, I told stories in school in Pittsburgh, I told stories in DC
I had those cousins that I haven’t spoken to in years randomly reach out, especially with the move: “Hey cuz, I always knew you were going to make it, we’re proud of you.” And it’s like, “I haven’t spoken to you in seven years — how did you find me?”
[The production was] telling me about the salary on the phone and they were like, “How does that sound to you?” And I was like, “If I’m being honest, before I got this role, I was living in Pittsburgh, unemployed, applying for rent relief because I owed rent from when I lost my job during the pandemic. So I’m not picky, I just need enough money to live in New York and have groceries and buy clothes and body wash.”
‘Don’t Touch a Damn Thing’
Spivey shared what it was like to settle in at the Lyceum Theater in Manhattan.
I went into every dressing room and when I came to No. 6, I just took a deep sigh of relief. I was like, “There’s something special about this room and I’m just very comfortable in it.”
One of the main things I’ve learned [on Broadway] is as the actor you don’t touch a damn thing on that stage that’s not your prop [because of union rules]. So if there’s maybe a chair that was pushed off its mark, we can’t move that chair. Being a nice person I’m like, “Oh the flesh fell over, let me pick it up.” But here you just don’t do it.
I’m still looking for an apartment. The most difficult part is finding time to go and make sure it looks like the pictures and if there is a roommate that the roommate is not crazy and not weird. For right now, a roommate is the easiest option. I think just to get my own spot and start from square one would be too much.
As far as personal life goes, I’m the same Jaquel: I’ll go home and watch “Braxton Family Values,” wake up in the morning and listen to gospel music.
I’m curious to actually have a conversation with my mother about the show, because we haven’t had one. I want to give her space to be like, “It’s OK to breathe and know that this show is a lot and you had to see your youngest child do it.” It’s going to take some processing for her — it takes processing for me and I do it every night. I’m sure I’m going to end up inviting her but I’m also in a place where the stakes are just a little bit higher. And again, I don’t want to overwhelm her.
I’m a little more closed off than I used to be because I don’t want to build relationships on the fact that I’m in a Broadway show. I don’t want to go on a date with a guy who wants to date me because he’s a fan of the show and he’s a fan of Broadway. So I’m very cautious these days.
I don’t want to take on the pressures of the LGBTQIA+ community, plus-size community, the queer religious community. I just think it would be unfair of me to put that on myself. So I’m just trying to tell a story and make some change in this world. And then go home and eat a snack.
‘Just Kind of Broke Down’
One last call: Spivey was feeling validated the day after the first Broadway preview, which had been delayed after cast members tested positive for the coronavirus.
I had done “Memory Song,” which is the second to last song of the show. Only once before, in DC, had the audience applauded at the end — Stephen directed the show so we don’t wait for the applause and move to the next scene, to the next song, to the next moment. But last night, the audience roared and I could just feel the stage vibrating from their clapping and their hollering. It’s such an emotional song to get through and I just kind of broke down a little bit afterward and had to pull myself together while I was facing away from the audience. Because it was like, “People are listening to what I have to say.”