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Larry Owens
Photography Bridget Badore

Larry Owens on Broadway’s beauty standards as a queer black man of size

Fresh from his role as Usher, in Michael R. Jackson’s off-Broadway A Strange Loop, the musical comedian demands to be seen, heard and adored

“I feel like I successfully created a new type of leading man for the musical theatre.” These are the words of Larry Owens, the supernova comedian, musical performer, and, as of this summer, uncanny stage star. Owens has never played coy about his many gifts—the booming voice; the immediate, startling connection to his audiences; and his deeply articulate showbiz vocabulary. And he has never shied away from what sets him apart in the industry: He is black. He is queer. He is of size. 

This summer, Owens starred in Michael R. Jackson’s off-Broadway A Strange Loop. In the deeply personal meta-musical, Owens is Usher, a fat, black, gay musical theatre writer working the doors of The Lion King and writing a musical about a fat, black, gay musical theatre writer. With an all-queer, all-POC cast, and a creator and leading man of size, the show breaks any number of precedents. 

Owens first encountered Jackson in 2015, when he was volunteering at the nonprofit incubator The Musical Theater Factory. Both were trying to find their place in the vastly exclusionary world of theatre; Jackson was polishing the irreverent work that would become A Strange Loop. Owens soon developed a relationship with Jackson and a symbiotic bond with the character Usher. “There’s this specificity of the lived-in experiences of a fat body that I was reading in the pages of a play for the first time,” Owens said. “I was bowled over because, beyond race and sexuality, my size has been the most limiting thing for me career-wise. For some reason, our society thinks that fat people have brought this on themselves, and if they wanted to change they could, and there’s no reason that anyone would want to be fat, so why would we listen to their stories?”

It would be years before he and the show could make their debut at Playwrights Horizons. But Owens knew that Usher was the role he had waited for his entire life. He also knew that to embrace his destiny as the play’s star, he would have to battle his way through the industry’s outdated standards of race, body and beauty—and face his own internalized demons as well.

So he returned to the climb, exploring the city’s other thriving scenes for performance.  By 2017, he found himself in the middle of New York’s alt-comedy renaissance, where acts like Bowen Yang, Peter Smith and Sydnee Washington were starting to build queer spaces that affirmed self-love over self-deprecation. Thanks to his indelible voice and exhaustive Broadway knowledge, soon he was an essential part of most lineups; impersonating Oprah and Viola Davis or belting out arias of Sondheim at musical comedy shows like Catherine Cohen and Henry Koperski’s Cabernet Cabaret. He also began co-hosting his own monthly show, Decolonize Your Mind with Karen Chee (now a writer Late Night with Seth Meyers).

Owens grew up in East Baltimore, where he attended theatre camps, and later trained at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater company. As a man of bigger build, he knew, early on, the judgments he’d have to contend with in showbusiness. He had a choice: Sublimate himself to industry standards, or wait for the standards to catch up to him. “The expectation to fit [in] just never made sense to me,” says Owens. “I stopped weight loss attempts in high school, which is a long time for an overweight person not to be really pushing and pulling with that struggle. I became committed to my body.”

That certainty of self would pay off in the comedy world, where performers usually toil for years onstage to figure out who they are. By vowing to make no compromises, Owens arrived with full ownership of himself and what he projects, and no fear of losing his authenticity with the slightest hint of a glow-up. “This is actually who I am. That skinny person [I could have been] would not be me. That skinny person would have to reconceive who they are and be constantly questioning and have the threat of returning to my actual shape. Here, I have no threat. (If I was thin) I might get to play more roles or get more dick, but not necessarily get better roles or better dick.”

That better role, Usher, finally came together in 2019, as A Strange Loop went into production. To fully embody the character, Owens had to re-engage with his former demons over and over, made literal by an entire cast playing Usher’s thoughts—and once they get rolling, it’s open season. The thoughts merrily go in on his weight, his talent, and his status as a pariah in the savage ecosystem of gay sex. 

Was he nervous? “At first I was so afraid that nobody would trust the language of a fat person, or listen to someone conventionally unattractive talk about their problems. I was concerned that they wouldn’t see that I was acting because of how an overweight black person acts is so different than the chic style of acting, the sort of mumblecore, Greta Gerwig mode. I was concerned that my technical skill would be overshadowed by the audience never having seen a fat body do this complicated work before.”

The show culminates in a harrowing Grindr encounter, made all the more shocking for its rarity—how often do we see two men of colour having sex on stage, let alone men of varying body types?  “I don’t think audiences have ever considered the overweight queer body sexualised. Even though [the sex scene] is a moment of brutality and humiliation and a breach of intellectual consent, it just shows the overweight queer body in mainstream media in a way that it’s never been seen before, considering that it’s really important that people are reminded of fat people as human beings. Part of the human experience is sex.”

Speaking of sex, though Owens affirms that he’s “all in” for a relationship—“I’m a hopeless romantic”—he feels largely lost in the incestuous hook-up culture within the comedy and theatre bubbles. “It’s so fucked up to be in this loving, accepting community and to have had no romantic intention, presumably because of how I look and not how I act because I have many friends but no lovers. It feels weird to always have no expectation of romanticism because of how I look. It’s this push and pull because I know my self-worth, and anyone who sees me onstage I think is responding to someone who is fully living in their body. I don’t know what the missing link is, but I do know what I look like. I can’t fault these people for not being trained to like my body when they’ve been trained to like other bodies.”

A Strange Loop closed in late July, with rave reviews from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Roxane Gay and Lee Daniels. Owens’ profile is higher than ever, and entertainment executives are sniffing blood— romantic paramours will inevitably follow. But what does Larry Owens want? “Hopefully I don’t have to do a play as taxing as this ever again. Hopefully, this tells the industry what I need them to know.” At the moment he’s focusing on downtown stages like Joe’s Pub, and his podcast What Makes U Sing? He also wants to develop a half-hour musical comedy special, and perform at theatres around the country. 

And he wants a relationship that sustains him—and that doesn’t require him to be the star. “I’m trying to get that big B—the boyfriend. I want to be in a long-term relationship with someone. I consider myself sapio, so I’m looking for that brain, and an ability to keep up without needing to be on zero—which is stage talk for centre stage. I don’t need to be centre stage. I can hang back and listen.”

Having faced his demons—on and offstage – Owens has a more balanced sense of self,  “Having this space in the theatre has made me examine my self-worth, not as I perceive it, but as it actually is. I used to quantify my self-worth against what other people like me have been given, and now I put it up with what the canon has wrought. I’m no longer measuring myself on the queer black stick. Now I can measure myself on the leading man stick.”