Allow Usher, the central – only? – character of Michael R. Jackson’s scathingly funny and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical A Strange Loop, to introduce himself.
He is, he tells us, “a young overweight-to-obese homosexual and/or gay and/or queer, cisgender male, able-bodied university-and-graduate-school educated, musical theater writing, Disney ushering, broke-ass middle-class politically homeless normie leftist Black American descendant of slaves who thinks he’s probably a vers bottom but not totally certain of that obsessing over the latest draft of his self-referential musical A Strange Loop! And surrounded by his extremely obnoxious Thoughts!”
Portrayed by Broadway newcomer Jaquel Spivey in a performance so comfortably inhabited you’d be forgiven for assuming he wrote it, Strange Loop‘s Usher takes his name from the stop-gap Lion King job that pays (barely) his bills while he writes the autobiographical musical of his dreams. He is, in short (and in his words), “a Black, gay man writing a musical about a Black, gay man who’s writing a musical about a Black gay man who’s writing a musical about a Black gay man, etc.”
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While Usher is, in a sense, the sole character of A Strange Loop (opening tonight at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre), Spivey is not the only performer: He is surrounded by those “extremely obnoxious Thoughts” that swirl through his brain, never giving him a moment’s peace. One is the voice of Daily Self-Loathing, another the Supervisor of Sexual Ambivalence, an agent aptly named Fairweather, various hookup dates, and other internal monitors who tell him he’s not Black enough or gay enough or thin enough or has enough money.
And then there are his politically and religiously conservative Mom and Dad, forever yelling in his head about sin and hell and AIDS and beseeching him to write a nice gospel musical like Tyler Perry (or “Toxic Tyler Perry,” as Usher calls the mogul; we’ll see more, much more, about Perry before Strange Loop calls it a day).
Fluidly directed by Stephen Brackett, with Raja Feather Kelly’s clever choreography punctuating Jackson’s delightfully brash score, A Strange Loop grabs hold of us the moment Usher concludes that funny introduction. If the show begins to lose a little steam – but just a little – towards the end, it’s only because Jackson has already made his points so clearly, pointedly and winningly.
As for that title, Usher explains it early on:
Well, don’t fall asleep but it’s a cognitive science term that was coined by this guy named Douglas Hofstadter. And it’s basically about how your sense of self is a kind of paradox. Because how your ability to conceive of yourself as an “I” is just an illusion-cycle of meaningless symbols in your brain that move from one level of abstraction to another but always wind up right back where they started. Yeah, I don’t totally get it either. But it’s also the name of this Liz Phair song that I really love.
As Usher’s doubts and hopes and insights loop in on themselves – and all that looping really is a pleasure to behold – the musical presents a complex portrait of a singular creation (by a singular new theatrical voice) that resists every effort (including Usher’s own) to categorize.
And as amiable as both Usher and this musical are, they can both be ferocious and unsparing. That long explanation of the show’s title is breathlessly delivered to a very promising potential hook-up partner who seems to truly care about Usher’s aspirations (and finds him irresistibly sexy). Then the hook-up, asked where he lives, says this: “I live in your imagination. I’m white obviously. 6’3”, with soft brown eyes, accidental six-pack abs, light brown scruff and an exquisitely groomed alt-right style haircut. I have an enormous pink cock, a full bush, and insanely low hanging balls that you will never have the privilege of tasting. And the fact that you would allow yourself even a moment of weakness to fantasize about a dick appointment with a power top like me when you should probably just kill yourself is a testament to the awesome power of the white gaytriarchy.”
Jackson is particularly effective in his take-downs of the groups that, in a perfect world, would be Usher’s natural allies: the gay community, where racism is as soul-killing as in any other community (certainly the theater community); Black contemporaries who disdain Usher and the “white girl” pop music he loves; a family whose homophobia is deeper than love; and even The Ancestors, who, in one stand-out scene are resurrected (and enacted by the Thoughts) to provide absolutely no comfort to their spiritual heir. There’s Harriet Tubman, and an Oscar-toting 12 Years a Slave slave, and Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jimmy Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston and, getting one of the musical’s biggest laughs, Whitney Houston, who emerges from an upright neon casket. And not one has solace to offer.
In fact, the Ancestors are especially harsh in their chastisement of Usher for his rejection of the man everyone from his mother to his agent seems to hold up as the epitome of what Usher hopes to achieve. Here are the chastising Ancestors speaking in unison: “Tyler Perry writes real life. He writes stories we can swallow like Popeyes chicken and biscuits.” He does not, everyone insists, waste time writing musicals about musicals about musicals.
The loose narrative of Strange Loop builds to both a decision – Usher has been offered a job ghostwriting a new gospel musical for Perry – and to a sequence in which we see what a Perry musical would look like if Usher (and, we might assume, Jackson) was allowed to write it. The scene, with Spivey-as-Usher-as-Perry-As-Medea – strange loops indeed – is as devastating as it is funny, and as excoriating as that imaginary encounter with the thirst-trap racist. Jackson takes no prisoners in his denunciation of “Toxic Tyler” and the feel-good Christianity that prettifies the deep, deep homophobia that follows Southern sons and cousins like Usher to their graves.
Spivey, in this scene and throughout the musical, is a marvel of dexterity, moving quickly and expertly from laughs to heartbreak, from music to monologue, and he’s matched every step by a fabulous, mixed-gender and physically diverse ensemble that gives voice to the Thoughts and the parents and the ghosts and the hook-ups (one of the latter even enacting a graphic act of simulated – and thoroughly degrading – sex).
As played by Antwayn Hopper, L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, James Jackson, Jr., John-Andrew Morrison and Jason Veasey, these Thoughts make for exceptional theatrical company. You wouldn’t want them whispering in your ear 24/7, but you’ll be glad Jackson and Spivey are there to relay the messages with such tremendous humanity. Usher might not ever escape them, but he’ll never stop trying, and that’s a loop far more noble than strange.
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