Billed “the big, Black, and queer-ass Great American Musical for all” this gleeful, insidious, put-it-all-out-there piece tells the story of a young everyman named Usher (Jaquel Spivey) – a depressed Disney theater usher – struggling to find his water level beyond survival. The hero is writing a musical about a young, Black, queer man writing a musical. Though framing is to say the least unconventional, Usher’s story is not uncommon.
“Strange loop” is cognitive scientist Douglas Richard Hofstader’s term for a cyclical structure that forms when, by moving only upwards or downwards, one finds oneself back where one started – like Lewis Carroll’s “caucus race.”
Aggressively homophobic, guilt-peddling Christian parents are only one faction of Usher’s underminers. Ambition, self-contempt, confused libido, and hyper awareness of what he calls “white gaytriarchy” (disconcerting icons and desired partners who may belittle) are reinforced by ever present beings, each a negative aspect of his unconscious. Six multi-talented thespians appear like Mephistophelean Jiminy Crickets. Imagine Stephen King with style.
James Jackson, Jr. (Thought 2), Jason Veasey (Thought 5), John-Michael Lyles(Thought 3), Jaquel Spivey (Usher), L Morgan Lee (Thought 1), John-Andrew Morrison (Thought 4), Antwayn Hopper (Thought 6)
There’s no way to explain how what might be suicidal emerges as funny, incisively satirical, and exuberantly raunchy as it does heart wrenching.
Contemporary references abound. Tyler Perry, written here as an exploiting Uncle Tom worshiped by the obtuse black community – and not incidentally his mother’s god represents “the chitlin circuit” to this principled playwright – Usher/Jackson. A gospel play grudgingly ghosted for money (the only segment in the musical that runs too long) seems to goose the theater audience into clapping in time until shocking lyrics are noticed. (There’s also a moment when the Lyceum spontaneously cheers.) Popeye’s Chicken is a dominant prop.
The only potentially positive sexual encounter turns out to be both illusory and mean, a single corporeal fuck “Inwood Daddy” is depicted as harsh and disillusioning. Even Usher’s doctor seems to admonish the young man for averaging only a “single penetration a year.” The MD’s terminology is more direct. If language offends, skip this one. Jackson is the Lenny Bruce of gay vernacular. Pain and loneliness are also palpable though sometimes wryly expressed. “When is it gawn be my turn to walk into a room and say, Iz married now, Miss Celie?!” Usher whimpers referring to a character in The Color Purple. It is not a camp moment. Confrontations with family are over the top, yet profoundly affecting. Actors trade off as his appalling mother and alcoholic father.
The outstanding cast, both physically and dramatically adept, includes openly transgender L Morgan Lee, James Jackson, Jr., John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Jason Veasey and tonight, seamlessly, Jon Michael Reese. Lee is up for a Tony Award. To my mind both she and James Jackson, Jr. are standouts.
Director Stephen Brackett and Choreographer Raja Feather Kelly work in tandem to create endless expressive moves from gestures to the demonstrative. At-ti-tude is on glorious display. Again, this should by rights seem camp, but doesn’t.
Bracket’s work with talented newcomer Jaquel Spivey (Broadway debut) is wonderful. Expressions are credible, timing superb; empathy factor sustained. Spivey can sing, dance, and act while remaining charming and innocent in the face of continual sturm und drang. Terrific casting.
Scenic design (Arnulfo Maldonado) is evocative and fun. Jen Schreiver’s lighting adds theatricality. Montana Levi Blanco’s costumes are original, yet often have that deftly concocted from an old trunk feel. Gender fluidity is well handled.
The multi-talented Michael R. Jackson is something of an Orson Welles. With a wide roster of grants and awards behind him, here he self-avowedly wrote exactly what he wanted under the assumption the musical would never get produced. Music is appealing, lyrics smart, timely, and beautifully crafted. The artist doesn’t settle.
Jackson’s work bears similarities to that of veteran Taylor Mac. Both playwright/composer/lyricist/performers portray queerness with deep intellectual underpinnings. While Mac’s oeuvre is often packaged as highbrow subject matter, Jackson’s approach uses colloquial/street/base manifestation to evoke more personal response. Both artists frame communication in vibrant, unexpectedly rollicking fashion sometimes at odds with message. They challenge as well as entertain. Go back and read an explanation of the title here. Don’t expect resolution.
A Strange Loop, which began life as a monologue called “Why Can’t I Get Work?”, then grew into a 2018 off-Broadway production, is the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize without a Broadway run. Michael R. Jackson is the first Black artist to win a Pulitzer for a musical. The show is nominated for 11 Tony Awards. Jackson, now 41 (his protagonist is in his 20s), pointedly refers to the piece as “emotionally autobiographical.” Interviews don’t address the pivotal homophobic parental relationship present here.
Photos by Mark J. Franklin
Opening: L Morgan Lee (Thought 1), Jason Veasey (Thought 5), John-Michael Lyles (Thought 3), Jaquel Spivey (Usher), John-Andrew Morrison (Thought 4), James Jackson, Jr. (Thought 2), Antwayn Hopper (Thought 6)
A Strange Loop
Book, Music & Lyrics by Michael R. Jackson
Directed by Stephen Brackett
Choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly
149 West 45th Street