Michael R Jackson’s meta Tony Award winning ‘A Strange Loop’ certainly pulls no punches, but its intelligence is let down by production elements
Isn’t it so brilliant to have a Broadway musical, self proclaimed “Big Black Queer Ass American Broadway Show” not only in existence but also the recipient of the Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Book? Within an industry that is dominated by white, cis-het and male voices, it’s refreshing and sorely needed to introduce and highlight new voices within that lexicon.
A Strange Loop is a highly unusual tale: incredibly meta and hyper-specific in its premise, yet none the less insightful and damning in its commentary for it. At its heart, it is the story of self-hatred. Central character Usher (Jaquel Spivey), a larger black queer man in his 20s, is desperately attempting to write a musical about a larger black queer man in his 20s writing a musical about a larger black queer man in his 20s (ad infinitum) all whilst working as an usher on The Lion King.
Usher finds himself a complete outsider and the audience is presented with the difficulties of existing as a black, queer man in modern society – especially when one does not conform to typical beauty standards. Usher’s family spray him with religious-fuelled homophobia, desperate to save him from the eternal damnation that his wayward behaviours are set to ensue, while Usher also finds himself an outsider within the “white gaytriarchy” where he is shamed for being “too black”. The show also tackles Usher’s almost abusive relationship towards seeking out sex with white men who fetishise him and feed into his internal conception that he is lesser than and unworthy.
The entire production is incredibly introspective. The staging itself, designed by Arnulfo Maldonado, is sparse, mainly operating around 6 archways across the stage, through which Usher’s “thoughts” regularly invade the action. Usher’s internalisation of all the negativity hurled towards him from all corners manifests itself within the show as six “Thoughts” (portrayed by L Morgan Lee1, James Jackson, Jr., John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Jason Veasey and Antwayn Hopper), reminding him of his own failures, whether that’s body image or writing talent or his duty as a black man or manifesting as his own parents. The mainly non-descript staging allows for the stage to resemble the isolation of Usher’s mind, though in many ways it diminishes the impact of the powerful writing by making lots of the action feel static and uninteresting.
This is rendered the more frustrating once the viewer realises that the scope of the stage is far more than this initial impression provides, with this archway capable of splitting in half and rotating and creating a far larger space. The excitement of the reveal of a far larger stage unfortunately does not outweigh the feeling of being condensed and hemmed in during the rest of the production. Ultimately, this comes down to an issue in both set design and direction. While Stephen Brackett and Arnulfo Maldonado have clearly identified the isolation of Usher’s mind, there is an argument – considering the intrusive thoughts – for Usher’s mindscape to be a far more bustling, active place, which perhaps might have provided a nicer bedrock for this introspection to take place – but that seems to be a matter of personal preference.
Indeed, as a piece of writing, A Strange Loop is far more striking and thought-provoking than necessarily comes across in the theatre. Listening to the soundtrack, the listener becomes acutely aware of Michael R. Jackson‘s intelligent, witty lyrics and the way that all of the songs link neatly together. On stage, however, the sparse set creates an illusion of simplicity. Furthermore, many of the songs, while having great, propulsive energy on the recording are limited by a sense of stillness on stage and, though these songs are very catchy, this creates a sense of lethargy, meaning that the main lyrics that come across are those which are incredibly repetitive, reducing Jackson’s work to something banal. This is not helped by the sound design, which makes hearing individual words somewhat challenging and does not adequately serve Jackson’s score.
Without a clear narrative thread, seeing as it is mostly taking place within Usher’s head and has little in the way of actual plot, it also makes the show feel somewhat aimless in places. Additionally, songs like “AIDS is God’s Punishment” – a particularly sinister moment of the show – makes its point within the first few moments and doesn’t necessarily justify its length – but perhaps that is merely this reviewer’s apathy towards gospel music shining through.
Usher is played perfectly by Jaquel Spivey in what is his professional debut. On stage for almost literally the entire show, Spivey lays himself bare here, giving Usher such wonderful vulnerability and a refreshing rawness. The audience can clearly see Usher’s yearning for acceptance and love throughout and it’s this performance that really holds the entire piece together, drawing the viewer in with his tremendous likability.
There simply is nothing like A Strange Loop as a piece of musical theatre. It feels highly experimental and daring and, above all else, unflinchingly and brutally honest writing. Unlike many musicals, which seem to present the world with a dreamy, flowery sheen, A Strange Loop shines a light towards the ugliest, most uncomfortable truths. Having spent more time listening to the soundtrack, it’s apparent that A Strange Loop is a show that requires a great deal of additional thought and perhaps repeat viewings to fully appreciate. It almost feels as if A Strange Loop is something that could readily be analysed in English classes in years to come. One thing is for sure, however, and that’s Michael R. Jackson‘s status as a hugely exciting writer to watch out for.
A Strange Loop is currently playing at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway, accepting bookings until January 2023. Tickets can be purchased here.
1In this performance, Thought 1 was played by Mars Rucker.