“It’s about a Black gay man writing a musical about a Black gay man who’s writing a musical about a Black gay man who’s writing a musical about a Black gay man, etc.,” or in short, it’s about life. That’s what 25-year-old Usher (Jaquel Spivey), the main character of Strange Loop says.
The “big, Black, and queer-ass American Broadway show” by Michael R. Jackson (writer, music, lyrics) opened on April 26 at the Lyceum Theatre and it just might be the most self-reflective piece currently on Broadway. Behind the raw and self-deprecating comedy, Strange Loop still manages to address serious issues of identity, racism, religion, and the politics of being fat, Black, and queer, but somehow the delivery is more entertaining than offensive.
Well, don’t fall asleep but it’s a cognitive-science term that was coined by this guy named Douglas Hofstadter. And it’s basically about how your sense of self is just a set of meaningless symbols in your brain pushing up or down through one level of abstraction to another but always winding up right back where they started. It’s the idea that your ability to conceive of yourself as an “I” is kind of an illusion. But the fact that you can recognize the illusion kind of proves that it exists.
We watch Usher, who is himself a Broadway usher and musical theater writer, get in his own way of writing musicals with his self-doubt and unresolved trauma of growing up big, Black, and queer. Those struggles provide the meat for the production, but the core is truly Usher’s inner thoughts, which gives the show its movement.
It is hard to imagine Jaquel Spivey’s portrayal of Usher being his Broadway debut. As Usher, Spivey is powerful, smart, transparent, comical, and familiar as he confronts the audience with queer conversations and a visual representation of trauma through musical numbers and monologue.
Technically, Usher is the only character in the show, but he’s far from lonely as six “Thoughts” (portrayed by James Jackson Jr., John-Michael Lyles, L Morgan Lee, John-Andrew Morrison, Jason Veasey, and Antwayn Hopper) surround his every move from the start of the show until the end. These “Thoughts” also come in as Usher’s mom, dad, doctor, dating app prospects, ancestors, self-loathing, financial struggle, sexual ambivalence, etc., and they never leave the stage (at least not completely). And with the pressure from his mom, Usher is writing a Tyler Perry-like gospel play (per her request) which becomes a huge parody scene of its own, revealing stereotypes and downright abuse both in Usher’s family and religious community.
By this end, everything falls apart, both the play we’re watching from the audience and the play Usher is writing (and the one he’s not). It all falls apart or it all comes together in one large number, “AIDs is God’s Punishment.” By this time, the question is finally raised: “So that’s it? That’s really how the show ends? He just turns his back?”
You’ll have to decide whom the aforementioned question refers to once you see the show. And as far as the question of whether he’ll heal, change or be utterly overcome by his own sabotaging thoughts, whether he’ll succeed as a writer or continue to shy away from writing his dark truth, well, these things are all outside the bounds of a very, very strange loop because inside that loop, it seems as if change is just an illusion. And if change is an illusion, what does that make of Usher’s thoughts? What does that make of Usher?
Starring ANTWAYN HOPPER, L MORGAN LEE, JOHN-MICHAEL LYLES, JAMES JACKSON, JR., JOHN-ANDREW MORRISON, JASON VEASEY, and introducing JAQUEL SPIVEY
Book, Music, & Lyrics by MICHAEL R. JACKSON
Choreographed by RAJA FEATHER KELLY
Directed by STEPHEN BRACKETT
For tickets, click here.