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What is the moral of a story that never ends? Self-doubt and societal pressure animate playwright Michael R. Jackson’s electrifying marathon sprint of a musical called A Strange Loop — a subversive sermon on the conflicted heart of an artist tormented by what the world expects from him.
Or in the words of the show’s main protagonist: “It’s about a Black, queer man writing a musical about a Black, queer man who’s writing a musical about a Black queer man who’s writing a musical about a Black queer man, etc.”
That’s Usher speaking (actor Larry Owens, brilliant and indefatigable), the lost boy with a famous first name whose days are spent ushering — pun certainly intended — at the Broadway musical The Lion King to subsidize his art-making. It’s a nexus of misery for the 25-year-old who quickly tears himself to shreds in what becomes an uncompromising burrow into the emotional costs racial hierarchies can exact from the political, professional, and romantic lives of Black people in America. Director Stephen Bracket and choreographer Raja Feather Kelley make a strong duo, delivering vital plot information through tragicomic bursts of light-speed energy paired with silky smooth pop dance shuffles. It’s a combination that keeps the pace alive until the last few scenes of the musical where things get clunky as the writing turns slightly bromidic in search of its final message. But Jackson is a true talent to watch, having written a sharp book with punchy music and lyrics, as well as handling the complex vocal arrangements for a cast of seven.
Produced at Playwrights Horizons in association with Page 73, A Strange Loop is a title with history. The phrase is a song by the musician Liz Phair; a cognitive-science term coined by Douglas Hofstadter referring to the slippery, reflexive nature of the self; and an allusion to W.E.B. Du Bois’s description in The Souls of Black Folk of the “double consciousness” of living while Black. “It is a peculiar sensation,” Du Bois wrote, “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
But Usher doesn’t have a double consciousness; he has about seven. These “thoughts,” as they’re called in the playbill’s cast breakdown, are pestering manifestations of self-doubt, self-loathing, and sexual ambivalence. Together, these mental monsters taunt Usher when he falls out of line with expectations from every corner of his society. Not loving Beyoncé or Rihanna? Tragic. Not praying at altar of Tyler Perry? Unforgivable. “It’s true I’m still emerging … looking to make my start,” Usher retorts when an agent offers him a chance to ghostwrite for the Medea moviemaker, “But not so hungry that I’d ride the Chitlin’ Circuit.”
It quickly becomes clear that this musical is not about Usher’s search for identity. This is someone who is well-versed in the multi-hyphenate parlance of intersectionality; someone who wears a bell hooks T-shirt and could easily recite the academic’s greatest essays, chapter and verse. Rather, A Strange Loop is about how we twist ourselves into knots resisting and relenting to society’s expectations of our potential. And it’s not that Usher lacks the agency to pursue his dreams; it’s just that his peers consistently deny him validation and support.
“I just wish the protagonist were someone I could imagine shagging,” a theater expert (played with ample smarm by the multitalented Jason Veasey) tells Usher during a staged feedback session. “Because whether it’s the Me Too era or not, fuckability is still the lifeblood of the theater, darling.” Another speaker suggests he make his play about slavery or police violence so allies in the audience will have something to hold onto.
Much of the musical’s comedic moments belong to Usher’s naysayers, whose jabs urge the young composer to retreat into despair. The sparse support for our protagonist usually comes from complete strangers, like a Floridian tourist (L Morgan Lee, mesmerizing) who enjoys standard musicals like Wicked and The Lion King. She tells Usher that his anxiety is overcomplicating things. “If you’re not scared to write the truth then it’s probably not worth writing,” she says. “And if you’re not scared of living the truth then it’s probably not worth living.”
That’s about as close to a thematic tagline as you’ll hear in a play as complexly layered as Jackson’s A Strange Loop. The advice rings true, but it also provides no roadmap for Usher’s escape from angst. He continues spiraling into what becomes a Freudian confrontation with his parents who never came to terms with his sexuality and career choice. The reunion does not go as planned and the minimalist set design opens to reveal a two-story set (designed by Arnulfo Maldonado) with a living room on the bottom and a funeral parlor on the top. Usher enters and exits the stage, playing different caricatures of Tyler Perry personalities that his mother so adores. His mother tumbles through this delirium, which unspools as fast as Usher’s rage boils until he reemerges once again in a preacher’s gown to lead the cast in a chant: “AIDS IS GOD’S PUNISHMENT!”
Watching this climactic moment and its resulting conclusion, viewers might feel their own pangs of angst, their own strange loops. What Jackson has created is a vortex of postmodern worry — a rendering of how our hyperconscious searches for identity have provided us both the tools of self-actualization and the means to our own destruction. But if we can reduce identity, as Usher argues, into a series of ultimately meaningless symbols, then what’s stopping us from rewriting the script? We never see how this eleventh-hour epiphany changes Usher’s life — the show ends here — but we can imagine. That’s the gift baked into the premise of Jackson’s musical; A Strange Loop is an exemplar of writing conflicted, complex characters in full relief.
A Strange Loop continues through July 28 at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd Street, Midtown West, Manhattan). Book, music, and lyrics by Michael R. Jackson; Choreography by Raja Feather Kelly; Directed by Stephen Brackett; Produced by Playwrights Horizons in association with Page 73.