When Aurin Squire was growing up in a neighborhood near Opa-locka in the 1980s and '90s, the future playwright-screenwriter and his friends revered entertainer Michael Jackson as the idol he was, the ever-evolving King of Pop.
"We had a VCR, and people would come over to watch the 'Thriller' video with my sister and me," the peripatetic Squire, a writer and co-executive producer on the Paramount+ series Evil and The Good Fight, recalled in a recent Zoom interview from Los Angeles.
Could Squire have imagined how Jackson would eventually figure into his now-thriving career? Probably not.
A journey that began with a simple writing exercise at Manhattan's New Dramatists in 2004 will culminate in Miami New Drama's world premiere of Squire's Defacing Michael Jackson. The play, a coming-of-age tale about five Opa-locka teens, opens in previews Thursday, March 9, and Friday, March 10, then opens to the public Saturday, March 11, and runs at the Colony Theatre on Miami Beach's Lincoln Road through Sunday, April 2.
The play came about this way: Squire was a New Dramatists intern in 2004 when playwright Rogelio Martinez (whose Elián had its world premiere at Miami New Drama earlier this season) had the interns do a quick writing exercise. Each came up with a list of three childhood rituals, then wrote a short script about the one the group chose.
Watching "Thriller" is the one that got selected. "You never know how interesting your life is until you open it up to other people and see what they respond to," Squire says. Later, when he was stuck in his dorm room at The New School one day, he took out that skeletal version and expanded it to a one-act play. That version was produced at a New York festival and picked by publishing company Samuel French.
Jackson's death at age 50 on June 25, 2009, set off a series of events that took Squire and the play in a new direction.
A director asked Squire to expand his Jackson one-act to a full-length play, which he did over the course of a month while sitting at his parents' kitchen table, but that director passed on doing a production.
Squire submitted the script when he applied to the playwriting program at the Juilliard School. He gained admission, and the script helped him get theater and television agents, along with the first of many television writing jobs.
In 2018, the small Chicago-based Flying Elephant Productions performed a showcase version of Defacing Michael Jackson, but Squire — on a monthlong silent meditation retreat — wasn't involved. This time, at Miami New Drama, he is.
Defacing Michael Jackson is not a play about the late icon, who was both adored and reviled. The characters are members of a Michael Jackson fan club in 1984, and their quest to make a mural that would pay lasting tribute to their hero becomes a big point of contention — but hardly the only one.
Miami New Drama artistic director and cofounder Michel Hausmann read Defacing Michael Jackson before launching his company in 2016. Back then, he imagined the play in an intimate, black-box space rather than the 415-seat, art-deco Colony Theatre. But Hausmann began championing and commissioning Squire.
Thus far, the company has produced Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy (by Billy Corben and Squire) in 2019, Blackfish (part of the Drama League Award-winning 7 Deadly Sins project) in 2020, and the world premiere Louis Armstrong musical A Wonderful World in 2021. (Squire wrote the book for that show, which will have tryout runs in New Orleans and Chicago in October.)
Squire's dialogue is intricately crafted, emotionally raw, funny, vulgar, and sometimes startling. He is not a writer who pulls his punches.
Of the colorism that figures so prominently in Jackson's life story, he says, "Almost all Black superstars strangely become whiter, their noses smaller, their features more Eurocentric, their hair longer and straighter. It is an unspoken, uncomfortable issue involving the nuances of colorism versus saying, 'I don't want to be Black anymore.' When I was growing up, it was implied in the media that Black people were dumb, worthless, and ugly. That's why Black lives matter. Black is beautiful."
The world premiere of Squire's play is being staged by New York-based director and actor Shaun Patrick Tubbs, whose next project will be directing the sweeping Tony Award-winning musical Ragtime for the Union Avenue Opera of St. Louis.
"I had Thriller on vinyl, and the first concert I ever attended was a Michael Jackson concert in Cleveland when I was 10 or 11," Tubbs says. "He provided the soundtrack to my adolescence."
As a child, Tubbs wondered about Jackson's ever-changing appearance: his porcelain skin, surgically reshaped nose, and long wigs after the singer's hair caught fire when he was shooting a Pepsi commercial in January 1984.
"I wondered why he didn't want to be Black anymore," Tubbs says. "The remarkable thing was that he never changed his eyes. The eyes were who he was. He was looking at the world through those same eyes."
Squire, Tubbs says, "did an incredible job. His writing is so authentic. These are the real voices of youth doing what everyone did then. It's set in Opa-locka, but it could take place anywhere."
The friends are Obadiah (Xavier Edward King); Frenchy (Sydney Presendieu), president of the fan club and a girl hell-bent on becoming Mrs. Michael Jackson; and twins with very different personalities, Yellow and Red (Dylan Rogers plays both). When a white family moves into the Black neighborhood, new kid Wes (Joshua Hernandez) starts hanging out, upsetting the established order and fixing his gaze on Obadiah. The others dub Wes "Jack," as in Cracker Jack.
King and Rogers were part of the acclaimed TimeLine Theatre Company production of Tyla Abercrumbie's Relentless, presented at Chicago's famed Goodman Theatre a year ago. Hernandez, a Miamian now based in New York, grew up in suburban Westchester and previously appeared in two race-themed GableStage productions, Joshua Harmon's Admissions and Claudia Rankine's The White Card. New World School of the Arts grad Sydney Presendieu made her professional debut earlier this season in Zoetic Stage's production of Lynn Nottage's Mlima's Tale.
"I wanted individuals who made me think of people I grew up with. I searched everywhere... Some [roles] came fast, the first voice I heard, and some took 30 to 40 auditions," Tubbs says. "They're very young. I love the fact that they didn't grow up with what I did [regarding] Michael... Michael Jackson isn't in the show. Each character carries him from moment to moment. Where you are in your own life will change your perspective."
Though their lives didn't precisely intersect with Jackson's rise and tragic fall, the actors have strong feelings about the unseen superstar at the heart of Defacing Michael Jackson.
"Michael Jackson is my favorite musician and entertainer of all time. There's nobody like him — no one before him, no one since," says King, who passed on a few plays before saying yes to this one. "I wanted to dive into more about who he was and how he affected people."
Obadiah serves as narrator and anchor, guiding the audience from the present back to the characters' teen realm in Opa-locka. As Squire puts it in the character's opening monologue, most of the play is set in "the year of the eternal future: 1984."
King says he appreciates Tubbs' energy, humor, and acting skills that feed into his direction. He also appreciates Squire's willingness to collaborate with the director and actors.
"He's so busy. We did a run-through, and he just sits there and listens. I looked at him, listening, and wondered what was going on in that wonderful brain of his. He's able to let go of certain ideas," the actor says.
Choreographer Randolph Ward, fight choreographer Lee Soroko and intimacy choreographer Nicole Perry are working with the cast, with Perry particularly focused on an evolving relationship between Obadiah and Wes/Jack.
"My character is exploring his sexuality. At first, it's comical, then more serious. I've tried to figure out his back story... He's probably the child of sexual abuse. He's lonely, doesn't have many friends... The play is very truthful."
Now in her mid-20s, Presendieu gets the depth and breadth of Jackson fandom.
"When I was growing up, I loved Michael Jackson — his talent, his shine, his perfection. I have four brothers, and when we performed, we called ourselves the Presendieu Five. I would definitely have been a huge fangirl. The music is timeless, both Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five. So many people remember where they were when he passed away," she says.
The actor calls Tubbs "a radiant ball of energy" and Squire "so funny – the jokes in his writing are very intentional. There's always a meaning."
And she's thrilled to be playing Frenchy.
"She's an incredibly bold, passionate character. She's so determined to get what she wants. She imagines a fairy-tale future: She'll marry Michael Jackson, but Obadiah is also in her future," Presendieu says. "She demands the space she's in. She's not afraid to take up that space, even though a lot of people oppose her."
Rogers plays not only the troubled full-of-himself Red and the reserved, stuttering Yellow but also an Opa-locka commissioner who's morally two-faced. When he first heard the play's title, he thought it would explore Jackson's life. Not so.
"This is a unique coming-of-age play. They're all outcasts, but they share a love of Michael Jackson. Despite the things that make them ostracized, he gives them the strength to get through the day," Rogers says.
"It's about how you lose a lot of yourself in hero worship. When you realize who your hero is, you have to reinvent yourself... Over time, the image of Michael Jackson gets changed, warped. What happens to the mural is a representation of their evolution."
The ultra-busy Squire will travel to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, after Defacing Michael Jackson opens for another world premiere from March 16-26. Lean Ensemble Theater will debut his play Mitchelville, about a young man whose efforts to save his Gullah family home lead him to deeply explore family history, the Civil War, and the first American town of Black freedmen.
Of the kids in Defacing Michael Jackson, Squire says that yes, there's some of himself and people he knew in the play.
"These are composite characters. You begin from an honest place and put drops of real moments here and there. You find the absurd truth, then extrapolate with the craft of fiction. It's a lot of untangling of the ball of energy which is our creativity," he says.
Says director Tubbs, "I know the audience will see themselves in it, regardless of their age. It's funny, and we need to laugh. Laughter opens us up to every other feeling. That's why tears come so quickly."
– Christine Dolen, ArtburstMiami.com
Defacing Michael Jackson. Saturday, March 11, through Sunday, April 2, at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach; 305-674-1040; miaminewdrama.org. Tickets cost $46.50 to $76.50. Performances occur Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.