A Strange Loop is a lot. Michael R. Jackson’s musical about a black, queer musical theatre writer named Usher who is writing a musical about a black queer musical theatre writer named Usher (who works as an usher—Jackson insistently doubles every element of his piece) is a deep dive into existential angst and self-loathing. It is not, as Jackson puts it in his playwright’s note, “formally autobiographical,” but it did come out of a monologue written in his early twenties when his sense of himself was “as nothing more than a mass of undesirable, fat, black queerness.”
To say A Strange Loop, currently presented by Playwrights Horizons in association with Page 73, is referential is an understatement. Jackson appears to have made a game of cramming every possible allusion into the 105 minutes of his musical. There is a particular delight in the palimpsest of the title. Professor of Cognitive Science Douglas Hofstadter’s theory of the “strange loop” is that the human sense of self is itself an endlessly self-referential set of symbols, ultimately leading back to the same starting point. Into this theory, Jackson slips a less highbrow allusion to indie rock/pop singer-songwriter Liz Phair who, in her 1993 song “Strange Loop” from the album Guyville, sings, “I can’t be trusted / They say I can’t be true / But I only wanted more than I knew.” Included in there too is W.E.B. Du Bois, who defined the U.S. Black experience as a state of “double consciousness”: “of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” Each are equally important to Jackson’s alter-ego’s perception of self.
The show establishes its metatheatrical credentials at curtain-up, as Usher (Larry Owens) rings intermission chimes and his personified Thoughts question:
THOUGHT #1: How many minutes ‘til the end of intermission?”
THOUGHT #2: Is that how the show should open?
THOUGHT #1: Should there even be a show?
THOUGHT #2: No, it should start with what he’s thinking
THOUGHT #1: Which is just a cursor blinking ‘cause of
THOUGHTS #1-2: All of the directions that the narrative could go!
The Thoughts incarnate the individually characterized facets of Usher’s consciousness, as well as his perceptions of people in his life. Although each member of this six person chorus embodies a particular aspect of Usher’s self-perception—or rather, angst—no single performer is exclusively responsible for the external characters that shape his sense of self. At times Usher’s parents, in particular, are amplified into a multitude of voices, as in one vignette in which a glorious chorus of lavender robe-clad mothers call to “discuss [her] son.” The performers instill the role of Usher’s mother with coherent inflections and mannerisms, while maintaining nuance in the characteristics each emphasizes most.
There is a lot that is cruelly familiar. Who has not experienced a visit from “Daily Self-Loathing,” if not always with the same intensity or frequency? Who has not experienced anguish in trying to identify or reconcile some inner sense of self with the perceptions and expectations of others? Yet, A Strange Loop adds in the deeper pain of someone who is marginal within the marginalized. Usher faces the bible-thumping homophobia from his oppressively adoring mother and detached father on the one hand, constant body shaming, and racist snobbery—or outright sadism—from the gay community on the other, all while feeling simultaneously tooblack and not black enough.
Humor, albeit very dark humor, and some stellar musical numbers rescue the unrelenting introspection from being too deadly. Artistic imaginings of inner states of being can easily descend into cerebral posturing or cringe-worthy adolescent poetry and A Strange Loop does not entirely escape these traps. The musical numbers are—once again—referential, but also feel fresh and original. Raja Feather Kelly amplifies the entertainment value of these numbers with some great choreography samples from eclectic styles, adding a pleasing irony without losing vivacity. At its best, the book snaps along with sharp and sometimes outrageous comedy. Jackson isn’t looking to please. His comedic edge and less-funny, unflinching illustrations of cruelty is sometimes appalling and thrilling in equal measure. No small amount of shade gets thrown—at the Disney musical machine, white theatre patrons hungry for stories of black suffering that sit comfortably within expected themes, pretentious MFA writing professors and workshop participants, and, most satisfyingly, producer-goliath Tyler Perry and his sugar-coated, mass-culture-condoned, quietly bigoted gospel theatre empire.
The performers exhibit different strengths, though all are dynamic and engaging. L Morgan Lee (Thought #1) is virtuosic in the gospel and semi-operatic moments that go to her. Larry Owens in the lead is, in fact, the weakest singer. He has a tendency to grit his teeth in a way that constricts his voice, losing vocal strength, pitch, and clarity in certain tones, although the rest of his singing shows the potential of his voice. I don’t question his casting, however. Few performers would fit the role so well and he plays it with sensitivity and humor. Indeed, all the performers add a healthy dose of personality to their singing, dancing, and acting; a unique verve that is essential to give the ensemble the interest and variety that the absence of consistent named characters could diminish. Costumes by Montana Levi Blanco help articulate this individual distinctiveness within the unified ensemble, clothing the Thoughts in variations on beige that are not bland. Usher wears the uniform of a nerdy, arty, socially aware NYU graduate. Costumes of the external characters become increasingly realistic as Usher progresses further along his “strange loop.”
Arnulfo Maldonado saves a brilliant set reveal for the climax of the show. Although the spare rectangular cubes framed in fluorescent lights offer the necessary flexibility for the majority of the show, one of their greatest virtues is allowing full value to what, by comparison, feels like an extravagant set when it is finally revealed. The scene change also delightfully doubles down on the Tyler Perry gospel show that haunts this musical. Normally, I feel bugged by the set design equivalent of an 11 o’clock number: minimalism suddenly giving way to a set that looks like it ate half the budget; but here it pays off.
The production has a compelling energy and A Strange Loop crackles with potential even as it fails to overcome some of the issues inherent in the concept. 105 minutes is a long time to spend inside someone’s head. If everything is an endless loop of perception, something somehow gets lost in the emotional stakes, which leaves all of the pain and suffering evoked with nowhere to go. A Strange Loop is the final product of an idea first germinated in his twenties that deserved fruition and feels like the musical he had to write, yet I suspect that his undeniable skills as a writer—especially a songwriter—and his unflinching dark comedy will be more truly engaging when hung on something less ephemeral than existential angst. With numerous accolades already behind him, this is his professional debut, and I’ll be looking forward to whatever he produces next.