The cast of ‘A Strange Loop.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
“These are my memories,” sings the central character of Usher in the final moments of Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop. Punctuated with riffs on homophobia, AIDS, and racial disparity, the loop extends far beyond the stage of Playwrights Horizons’ Mainstage Theater. Like the Spirograph I played with in the basement of my childhood home when the thought of “me” became too much to contemplate, Jackson’s musical loop will hook you with rainbow brilliance — a multitude of intersecting and overlapping orbits that shatter and rebuild the LGBTQ experience.
The finale comes after 100 emotionally sprawling minutes with Usher (an achingly visceral Larry Owens) and his thoughts, portrayed by a dynamic cast of six black and queer actors who embody flesh and blood (his parents, his doctor, a hook-up, etc.) as well as his psyche (self-loathing and other imaginative tangents). Directed by Stephen Brackett (Be More Chill) and choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly, A Strange Loop tackles many of the insecurities that we’ve all faced at one point or another. This doesn’t diminish its specificity of the black queer experience. Instead, it reinforces the idea that individuality and commonality aren’t mutually exclusive.
“I had some time to kill so I thought I’d drop in to remind you of just how truly worthless you are,” says one of Usher’s thoughts “a la Wendy Williams.” He works as an usher (one of the musical’s many intersecting loops) at The Lion King while trying to write his own musical, constantly facing invasive thoughts of self-doubt. The real-life Jackson earned a BFA in playwriting and an MFA in musical theatre writing from NYU Tisch School of the Arts, an esteemed pedigree that didn’t necessarily come with hubris, which is also reflected in his semi-autobiographical leading man.
My strange loop: I worked as a server for many years just north of the NYU campus. Each spring, graduates and their flocks of family and friends would descend upon the restaurant, boasting their PMS 2957-colored caps and gowns. I’d think, “Maybe I wouldn’t be working Sunday brunch if I had an NYU degree instead of one from a moderately reputable school in southern Ohio.”
Usher’s creative pursuits, which strive beyond the racial commodification the character describes as “the chitlin circuit” (insert nearly everything from Tyler Perry’s body of work), are intrinsically connected to his role in society. In an interview with Playwrights Horizons artistic director Tim Sanford, Jackson says, “As a black person living in this white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy, you are constantly translating.” Generational trauma, both familial and societal, impacts Usher’s need for connection and sexual fulfillment, ultimately manifesting in subjugation.
My strange loop: While I’m watching Usher get fucked by an “Inwood daddy,” who tosses around the word “nigger,” refers to the young man as a monkey, and then offers him leftover Popeye’s chicken, my mind skips to an early morning when I found myself at the epicenter of the Lillian Wald Housing Projects on New York City’s Lower East Side. The New School had wait-listed me for a master’s degree in creative writing (no Rubine Red cap and gown for me). My response was to buy a dime bag of cheap cocaine from a fellow server and snort my sorrows away. Bar hopping led to following a stranger home and a clandestine stairwell encounter, cut short when a fire door slammed several floors above and we each scrambled our separate ways. I return to Jackson’s strange loop as both Usher and myself are doing the walk of shame.
Jackson widens the lens after a confrontation between Usher and his parents. Scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado’s neutral walls split to reveal the family’s bi-level home, which provides the backdrop for the mega gospel, “AIDS is God’s Punishment.” A choir of Thoughts painfully loops the lyric until the mental noise quiets down and Usher reflects, “So if Usher’s sense of self is just a bunch of meaningless symbols moving from one level of abstraction to another but ending up back where they started then his perceptions of Mom and Dad and everything else are realities that will never change until he changes.”
My strange loop: It’s a scorching summer night in Chicago circa 1998. I’m on a third date. We grab a six-pack of beer and head to the lakefront and drink in silence. He’s fidgety and sweet. I haven’t had enough life experiences to know my “type” or more life experiences to realize that self-imposed restriction doesn’t serve my queer community or me. “I’m HIV-positive,” he says, staring blankly at the mild waves crashing upon the rocky shore. “Okay,” I respond. I know I won’t see him again. We’re both afraid of the unknown.
Does Usher change? Have I changed? I don’t know. We’re all caught in a strange loop, packed with rage and love and desire and rejection and judgment and race and disparity and so on and so on and so on.
A Strange Loop is a rare commodity. One can’t walk away from Jackson’s fearless work without one’s own loop spiraling in a new direction. He reminds us to stay the course and experience the ugly. Strange can be glorious.
A Strange Loop
Playwrights Horizons in association with Page 73 Productions
416 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through July 28, 2019
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.