Topeka, Kansas-raised Obie Award-winning actor Antwayn Hopper is currently starring on Broadway as Thought 6 in Michael R. Jackson’s exhilaratingly meta musical, A Strange Loop. Hopper has been part of the ensemble cast for six years during the show’s development ahead of its Tony-winning Broadway run, including appearing in the 2019 Playwrights Horizons Theater production, which won the Pulitzer Prize.
The “big, Black, and queer-ass” Great American Musical, focuses on Usher, a Black queer writer who is struggling to write a musical about a Black queer writer, who is writing a musical about a Black queer writer. We told you it was meta. We see Usher, played on Broadway by Tony-nominee Jaquel Spivey, grapple with the thoughts in his head, questions of sexuality and identity, as well as the pressure and judgement from society, his parents, and religion. It’s an often poignant, frequently hilarious, and continually thrilling ride, with Hopper taking on multiple roles including iterations of Usher’s father, an intense Grindr hookup called Inwood Daddy, a bigoted church lady, and the iconic writer and activist James Baldwin.
In addition to its Best Musical Tony win, A Strange Loop also took home the Tony for Best Book of a Musical for its creator Michael R. Jackson, and has received Best Musical honours from the Drama League Awards, the Drama Desk Awards, and the Outer Critics Circle. In July, A Strange Loop celebrated its 100th show on Broadway and tickets are currently on sale through Sunday, January 15th 2023.
A graduate of the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama, Hopper made his Broadway debut in Hair and his many stage credits include The Loophole at the Public Theater, New York Theatre Workshop’s Civil War Christmas, and This Ain’t No Disco at New York Stage and Film. Away from the New York stage, he’s appeared in productions of Rent and Jesus Christ Superstar, while on screen he’s been seen in The Knick and Blacklist, and will feature in the upcoming movie Scab.
Here, Antwayn Hopper speaks exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about his journey from Topeka, Kansas to Broadway, his history with A Strange Loop, and the queer figures who inspire him.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: can you take us back to when the performer in you first awakened, I believe it was in the nativity play at school wasn’t it?
Antwayn Hopper: “Yes, it was! I was playing one of the three wise men. I was three years old and it was in preschool, or maybe before preschool even, because I was a military brat. It was in Fort Benning, Georgia. The military kids were a little community, there were about 20 of us. My mom and dad still have pictures of that play and I remember them having to make crowns for us out of foil. That’s what really got my attention; the glitz and the glamour of it all! Being back behind the curtain and knowing that you have something special to present to the audience was amazing too. Even at that age I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is what I want to do!’ Then that feeling was reaffirmed when I saw the national tour of Rent in 1996. I was in sixth grade and it was also around the time that I did my first proper stage show, which was Tales from Hans Christian Andersen. It was under the leadership of Janet Glassman, who I’m going to be speaking with next month at French Middle School in Topeka, Kansas.”
What was it about Rent that sparked your interest and what impact did that production have on you?
“I think it’s why I’m able to have a resume like I do. Everything that I’m blessed I do, especially in musical theatre, is real life. My debut was Hair, which deals with the Vietnam War and the protest, and I’ve been able to do Rent. Now I’m blessed to be in A Strange Loop. Rent is raw emotion. It’s a band of people, living life, struggling and going through tribulations and relying on each other. That’s all I’ve had to do in New York for the past umpteen years since I’ve been here. Now I have a network of people that have been through the muck, and I’m starting to see them shine and getting to see them get their dues, and vice versa. It’s a beautiful thing.”
You mentioning the foil crown that you wore as a three year old and loving the glitz and the glamour made me think of how stunning you looked at the Tonys. It’s fun to think of you enjoying dressing up on stage as a kid and then seeing how fabulous you looked on that night at Radio City Music Hall.
“Thank you! I got to wear that again for New York Fashion Week. My cousin, Aisha McShaw, created that outfit that I wore to the Tonys. We had many conversations about it. She’s my cousin by way of my father’s mom; our grandparents are brother and sister.”
Sticking with child Antwayn for a moment, I saw you mention in another interview that you used to lip-synch as a kid when your parents were out of the house. What numbers were you lip-synching to?
“Deniece Williams, Cause You Love Me Baby. Selena, Bidi Bidi Bom Bom. I did all of the choreography. En Vogue; everything from Funky Divas. I did a lot of Whitney Houston, and The Emotions. I had choreography for Regina Belle’s Reachin’ Back. I cannot wait for the day when God blesses me with the role of lip-syncing. I got to do a little lip-synch as Eartha Kitt, and to drive the men mad, at Williamstown!”
What was your arrival in New York like?
“When I arrived to live in New York, it was my third time being here. The first time I came for headshots with Peter Hurley, who I linked up with again recently because we’re going to be doing another shoot umpteen years later. People like him that have come into my life really show that artists in New York lead with humility, we’re about sharing this beautiful art form.”
I know one of your first gigs on Broadway was working at Bubba Gump restaurant in Times Square, but there was a community of performers there that you were working with wasn’t there?
“When I moved here, my first apartment was Manhattan Mini Storage out on 11th Avenue and 43rd Street. I dropped my stuff off there in 2007, then I signed with Talent Works and within a week I’d booked Respect out of MCC, which was in residence at New York Stage and Film. And, yes, I had also booked Buba Gumps, correct!”
Looking at your resume, it’s clear that you were very busy, but when you look at a performer’s list of credits it doesn’t cover the times in between. In an interview with Playbill, you said recently that at times you felt overlooked and that you’re an underdog. What helped to sustain you as you were establishing your career?
“My friends and my professors from Carnegie Mellon. When you’re feeling wayward, it’s the little things that pick you up, like a text message from someone you look up to going, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about you.’ Also, my church—Middle Collegiate—and my pastor, the Rev. Jacqui Lewis. I created a community out of people who are relentless in not allowing me to turn my back on me and to showering me with love. And now that I look back, I’m able to do that for others.”
Take us back to when you first got involved with A Strange Loop. I know you were approached by Michael R. Jackson when you were in line at the Ritz in Hells Kitchen. Initially you were only supposed to be part of the workshop temporarily weren’t you?
“Yes, six years ago, I filled in for Jason Veasey. I’m so blessed, because after the workshop, the director Stephen Brackett and Michael R. Jackson came up to me. They knew I was really stressed and I made it very clear that it was Jason’s gig and that I wasn’t trying to take anyone’s gig. They said, ‘Well, it’s Jason’s gig and it’s your gig’. And I went, ‘No way!’ Jason and I hugged, and we were so thankful because we’re both dramaturgy based actors and we’ve done three or four shows together now and it’s always great to work with him. So it’s just a win-win-win situation!”
Why were you so thrilled to be involved and what still excites you about A Strange Loop?
“I realized after doing Hair, and shows like Camino Real at the Goodman Theatre, and The Brothers Size at the Old Globe, that a lot of what I’m drawn to is raw emotion, real-life storytelling, where it doesn’t feel like there’s a curtain between me and the audience. My theatre father is André De Shields, and like him, I like to evoke, I like to make people feel a certain something magical, that is theatre. So right off the bat with A Strange Loop, we hear the lyrics: ‘How many minutes till the end of intermission? No one cares about a writer who is struggling to write’. I was like, ‘Okay, I’m in. Say no more.’ ‘Speak the speech, I pray you, trippingly on the tongue.'”
“Less is more, and Michael R. Jackson has crafted something that is a beautiful testament to one who is following their heart and is supposed to be where they are at that time, and it happens to be Black and queer. We need this. It’s ‘great art’, as Bevy Smith said, ‘not just musical theater art’, but ‘art period’. Michael sprinkles in the beautiful melodies of musical theatre that we love—like the big band vibe of Sondheim or Jerry Herman—on top of real life, and of Tyler Perry, and all of these things that we have to throw off us as Black actors, or throw on us. Then there’s that Family Guy, lighthearted kind of humor. It brings people out of their shells and it starts many conversations that need to be had.”
How much of yourself would you say that you bring to the plethora of characters that you play as Thought 6?
“The first one I do is Financial Faggotry, and he is a cunt. So that’s some of me! My humor is definitely out of cuntsville. I’m very witty, I’m very quick. I want people to laugh. Then we have Usher’s Dad. That’s a mixture of all of the masculine men I know in my life; like my uncles, my brothers, my dad, and my granddad, all in one spirit. Then we have the Dad in the family scene, which is supposed to be a little over-the-top. It’s part of giving Usher the idea to write this Tyler Perry-like show, as he’s realizing that his household is like a Tyler Perry show. I think we’ve all been there! So that’s every Black sitcom father you can think of—except Cosby—in one. It really is a beautiful example of restoration comedy. Then we have Inwood, who is actually based loosely on a combination of three individuals that I know. They’re real, living, breathing individuals, but I won’t say their names. Then there’s the church member. Now, she is a judgmental queen. Yes, honey! I went to one of the churches in Times Square—that shall remain nameless—and I remember the pastor there had nerve to get up on that pulpit and preach that we go to hell. And this woman had the nerve to be standing behind him. The loudest, pointing, and judgmental. I said, ‘Wow, this is perfect.’ So that’s how I got the church lady!”
One of the things that A Strange Loop explores is the impact of judgment from the church. Was that something that resonated with you as a person of faith who might have been made to feel unwelcome in these spaces by certain people, rather than by the religion itself?
“I was born in Germany, but I was raised in Topeka, Kansas in Unified School District 501, which is the legendary School District of Thurgood Marshall versus the Topeka Board of Education which allowed Black and white students to go to school together. That was my school district, and within it is the Westboro Baptist Church, which houses the Phelps. They’re actually friends of mine and my family. Libby Phelps is a good friend. But the Phelps family went around saying, ‘God hates [fags]’ and ‘you will go to [hell]’. They would picket everything including Matthew Shepard’s funeral. They’re even in the play, The Laramie Project.”
“So that’s my neighborhood, but mixed with that was a community filled with love for theatre arts. And love won. Having that community stand so firmly behind me, gave me the ability to walk past the Westboro Baptist Church and go up to them and say, ‘Hi, I’m Antwayn. What’s your name?’ And actually befriend a lot of them and realize that a lot of it was an act. Many of them actually don’t believe it. It’s all a perception of a perception of a thought.”
“While everyone was playing football, I was doing theatre arts and no one made fun of me. I was very strong-willed, my dad and my mom made sure of that. So moving to New York, I was already ready. I knew what I had to do to make sure that I was going to stay here and to maximize my experience, and to be the best actor that I could be and to make sure that I was always granted access, because I’m Antwayn Hopper.”
You mentioned that one of the characters you portray in A Strange Loop is Usher’s Grindr hookup, Inwood Daddy. I love the way that the hookup chats are brought to life on stage in the show, what are your thoughts on how it depicts Usher’s experience of hookup app culture?
“Well, first of all, kudos to you for saying ‘how it depicts Usher’s experience’. That’s something that we really want to get across to people. This is not an autobiography of Michael R. Jackson. These are based on experiences, perhaps heard, witnessed, or lived, all rolled into one. What I love about it, is the coyness of it all. There are many layers to one reply. It’s low-key, not in-your-face. It’s unsuspecting.”
“There have been many iterations. In this Broadway iteration, we can see that Inwood and Usher have an attraction to one another. But there was an iteration at Playwrights Horizons where Inwood was playing upon a fetish, and he was all about that fetish regardless of whether Usher was about it or not. Then there was an iteration at Woolly Mammoth where we toyed with whether there were some uncomfortable moments for Usher, and considered how the audience would take that. We didn’t want to take away from the full journey of Usher finding and coming into himself. This is just one moment of it, despite how jarring it might be.”
The six Thoughts are distinct and individual, but you all move with one flow. It’s pretty spectacular to watch as an audience member. The fact that you’ve been working together for so long must really help with that.
“Personally, I think Raja Feather Kelly’s gorgeous choreography has been overlooked. People come to see the show, and they go ‘Oh, y’all are dancing!’ We’re moving. We got to watch the show the other day because we got to witness our beautiful wonder-studies, fellow actors, do the show. In the opening of the show particularly, we’re constantly moving. We do move as one, but I don’t think we realized that before. It makes sense, because our group has been together for three and a half years. All of us, aside from John-Michael Lyles and Jaquel Spivey, have been together for six years. So our movement is as one now. That’s the beauty of working together on a piece over a length of time. That’s a luxury and a little bit of old school shimmer. That’s one of the secrets of the old school way.”
I’ve heard you say that you feel like you’re part of a Black Renaissance. What does it mean to you to be to a part of this Black queer and trans cast?
“It’s an honour. When you’re blessed to do a show, such as A Strange Loop, that reaches so many people, who can’t even formulate words after they’ve seen it, it really puts you in a bracket of being a soldier. This is a beautiful army of love and we have to reach the masses. We have to get it out there, this message of love. I’m honoured to be thought of as a hero for being in this show. I’m just a regular person, but one thing that I will do with pride, is uphold the banner for our community. I’m thankful for the love we get shown daily by our community; the queer community, the Black community, whatever community. We’re really bringing people together. The love from the celebrities who’ve been to see it has been incredible. From Michelle Obama, to Gayle King, Queen Latifah, Lena Waithe, Cynthia Erivo, Billy Porter, RuPaul, Samuel L. Jackson, and Mindy Kaling. I could go on! It’s a blessing. It’s a dream.”
If you were to put an album out, what kind of vibe would it have?
“I’m actually working on an album. My joke is, ‘Hey Lil Nas X, meet your big brother Unlimited’. That’s the name of my music persona and he is a Johnny Hartman-meets-Sammy Davis Jr.-meets Brian Stokes Mitchell-meets-George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic-meets Hud from Hair! He’s just a big clunk of soul and he does a number a number of genres—he’s unlimited—including country and techno. You name the genre, let’s do it. Let’s play. Even classical, even arias. Why not? So that’s what we’re working on and trying to figure out how to get that down with a big band. I want to do something that’s a culmination of everything that is me musically.”
Lastly, what’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture, or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years and why?
“RuPaul. Around two and a half, or three years ago, I was really down on my luck and what would get me through those summer days—aside from listening to June Christy’s Something Cool—was watching Nelson Sullivan’s videos of RuPaul on YouTube on the 5ninthavenueproject channel. It’s the old way New York of the 1980s, when RuPaul was just starting out, but RuPaul had a vision. RuPaul was talking about branding, and everyone around RuPaul was just there for the moment, but RuPaul was really focused. Now, to look at how RuPaul has taken that brand into the world is pretty freakin’ amazing. I view things from a RuPaul mindset of producing with integrity and maximizing an experience.”
By James Kleinmann
Tickets for A Strange Loop on Broadway are currently on sale through Sunday, January 15th 2023 at telecharge.com. Learn more about the show at: strangeloopmusical.com and follow on social media on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok. A Strange Loop’s original Broadway Cast recording is also out now on streaming platforms.
Follow Antwayn Hopper on Instagram.