Before the lights go down at the Lyceum Theatre, a recorded announcement by A Strange Loop’s Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, composer and lyricist—Michael R. Jackson—politely reminds us to keep our masks on and to switch off or silence our mobile devices. Theatre etiquette which he says, as a former usher, he finds particularly irksome when ignored. It might even turn him murderous. A couple of minutes later in the show’s electrifying, urgent and funny opening number, Intermission Song, we meet a plus size Black queer theatre usher named Usher (Jaquel Spivey making a dazzling Broadway debut), working on Broadway at the The Lion King.
When he’s not being harassed with hundreds of questions from a swarm of theatreland tourists during the show’s intermission, Usher’s thoughts turn to the musical he’s writing, which he declares will be “a big Black and queer-ass American Broadway show”. Usher’s self-referential musical is called A Strange Loop, and it’s about a Black queer writer who is writing a musical about a Black queer writer who is writing a musical. Jackson, a Black queer writer, telling us that he used to be an usher, adds yet another layer to this exhilaratingly meta musical.
The dynamic and exceptionally versatile ensemble—Antwayn Hopper, L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, James Jackson, Jr., John-Andrew Morrison, and Jason Veasey—all reprising their roles from the show’s original Off-Broadway 2019 production at Playwrights Horizons, each take on a different facet of Usher’s mind and the recurring thoughts that taunt, plague, and occasionally embolden and inspire him. There’s Usher’s “Daily Self-Loathing” which drops by to remind him how “truly worthless” he is, his “Financial Faggotry” piping up about the student loans he wracked up at NYU, and the “Head of Corporate Niggatry” questioning him about his inability to tap into his “unapologetic BlacknessTM” so as to be embraced by the “Black Excellence crowd”. As these thoughts run through Usher’s mind throughout the show, building into one thrilling number after the next, a recurring concern is what constitutes a commercially viable piece of authentic Black queer theatre that doesn’t go the Tyler Perry route, or isn’t centered on slavery or police violence just “so the allies in the audience have something intersectional to hold onto”.
Instead, rather like Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick… BOOM!, A Strange Loop—both the show we’re watching and the one Usher is writing—centres on an artist’s struggle for self-acceptance and to create a work that’s both meaningful and will be seen. Jackson, and Usher, examine the specific struggles of a Black queer cis man in his mid-twenties living in New York who’s feeling pressure at the intersection of his identities from within, society at large, his queer peers, the judgement of his Black ancestors, and his religious parents. Parents—represented singularly at times and ingeniously by the entire ensemble at others—who love him but can’t quite come to terms with him being gay. Like the rest of the family, they’re given the names of The Lion King characters that reflect how he sees them (his brother landing with the villainous Scar). They regularly check in on him with encouraging, highly passive aggressive phonecalls urging him to change his life and to make some money, even if that involves sexual networking with a certain (now disgraced) mega producer they found out was also gay on “Googles.com”.
Usher grew up in a church that saw his gayness as a sin that would send him to hell, likely as a result of dying from AIDS—”God’s punishment”—which leads to one of A Strange Loop’s most breathtakingly audacious, cathartic, funny, and moving numbers. It’s appropriately uncomfortable too, especially as a few audience members awkwardly started to clap along to this provocative gospel showstopper. In fact, HIV looms large (both figuratively, and at one point literally) over the piece. The fear, shame and internalized homophobia that ignorant attitudes towards HIV stoked in Usher as he was coming of age is explored and contrasted with the newfound sense of sexual freedom being celebrated by many (but not him) with the advent of PrEP. Also present here is an acute awareness of the disproportionate impact of HIV on Black men in the United States, as explored in Donja R. Love’s powerful play one in two, which played Off-Broadway the same year that A Strange Loop did. Usher’s cousin Darnell, who died of AIDS without going on an any medication following his HIV positive diagnosis, hovers like a spectre in Usher’s mind, as he is disparaged by the family and held up as a cautionary tale of what Usher’s fate will be.
Right at the top of the show we were promised “there will be butt-fucking!” and so there is. Jackson approaches the discussion and depiction of gay sex in a way that feels sex positive, unfiltered and authentic, not holding back, but not there just to shock either. Usher describing himself as “probably a vers bottom” gets one of the biggest laughs of the night, both from the mocking onstage chorus, and the audience reacting to their reaction. His preference is almost beside the point, as his “Supervisor of Sexual Ambivalence” points out, because the gates of his “body and mind” are currently sealed, along with is “butthole”.
When Usher goes for his annual doctor’s checkup there’s no penetrative sex to report, so he leaves the appointment determined to get on all of the hookup apps hoping to meet a guy, any guy. The various men he encounters virtually and the way they fetishize themselves and what they’re looking for—as well as the brush offs and colourism he encounters—is astutely and hilariously observed, staged and performed by the talented ensemble. In forcing himself out in the world to have sex with just anyone, things turn dark as Usher wrestles with himself to establish some boundaries. A Strange Loop is particularly nuanced, sharp and insightful in its examination of the manifestation of white supremacy (“the white gaytriarchy”) in gay male culture, interracial sex and relationships, and the meaningfulness of Black queer men being together in a way that puts it in a compelling conversation with Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play and Daddy.
Each of the six supporting performers is continually captivating without pulling focus, creating immediately recognizable, clearly defined—if often abstract—characters that match the brilliant detail they’re drawn with by Jackson. That’s carried through in Raja Feather Kelly’s masterful choreography which enhances and enriches the individual’s characteristics in each moment, with some wonderfully bold choices, even as the ensemble move together in an intoxicating flow. There’s also the occasional hat tip to the dance moves of pop culture icons like Britney (one of Usher’s confident inner white girls he attempts to channel) and Michael Jackson (the other one), as well as the classic work of legendary choreographers including Ailey. That the ensemble seamlessly take on different genders and races in the character’s that they portray adds another dimension to the show’s thematic concerns.
In some ways, this is a one man show about a Black queer man performed by seven Black queer actors. One of the genius things about A Strange Loop is its rendering of how we build up a picture of ourselves and the battle that we all have with the voices inside our heads to shape and maintain it. On the surface, conjuring that stress and confusion on stage could result in something impenetrable and chaotic, but with Jackson’s clear vision combined with the talents of director Stephen Brackett it is coherent, elegantly organized chaos, aided by the stylish but precise work of every element of the creative team from Arnulfo Maldonado’s set design to Montana Levi Blanco’s costumes and Jen Schriever’s lighting design.
At the heart of the show is a bravura performance by Jaquel Spivey. Baby, remember his name. An exceptional singer with clear and beautifully expressive tones, and acting and movement skills that match his vocal abilities. He brings a vulnerable, deeply moving soulfulness to Usher that’s heartbreaking at times, but with an endearing playfulness and a twinkle in his eye he shifts to joy and hope with ease. Despite its darker shades, there is a strong element of hope running throughout A Strange Loop. After all, we’re sitting in a Broadway theatre essentially watching the very show that the central character is struggling to write—but dreams he can pull off—and as Usher faces his own raw, often painful emotions it is through immediately appealing, stylistically varied musical theatre numbers that sound both fresh and reassuring classic. In this Broadway incarnation the music has a much fuller sound than in its original run, with music direction by Rona Siddiqui and orchestrations by Charlie Rosen.
Rapid-fire, riveting and continually surprising, A Strange Loop is clever in a way that delights. Jackson might provoke at times, but he warmly invites in every audience member. A line that perhaps sums up the style of the show best is when Usher has been offered to ghost write a gospel musical for Tyler Perry by his agent, an undertaking that would thrill his mother, but he’s clinging on to his own purpose and reflects: “I’m into entertainment that’s undercover art”. No matter how meta, or how deep this show goes it never stops being enthrallingly entertaining. Usher’s doubts about how to end the show recur throughout, but the last number, right down to the final line, is deeply satisfying. If I had an extra star, I’d give this show a six. If you only see one Broadway show this year make it this big Black and queer-ass one.
By James Kleinmann
A Strange Loop opened at New York’s Lyceum Theatre on April 26th 2022. For more details and to purchase tickets head to StrangeLoopMusical.com.