‘A Strange Loop’ examines identity, society, artistic unconscious

Image courtesy of Ed Cheetham.

Stuck in Manhattan traffic on a recent Friday at 8:10 p.m., I and a busload of Vassar students thought we would miss the evening performance of Michael R. Jackson’s “A Strange Loop.” Fortunately, the traffic cleared, and the excellent theater staff seamlessly seated us in darkness just as the show had begun. And lucky that we made it, because the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical was irreverent, iconoclastic, and scathing—yet beneath its thunderous critique and social commentary was introspective darkness where artistic insecurity meets questions of identity. 

The musical follows a young Black gay man named Usher through a spiraling metanarrative where he writes a play about himself writing a play. The story the audience engages with becomes a platform for Usher to voice his insecurities about his art as it relates to his personal, racial, and sexual estrangement from various social groups. Throughout the performance, the musical’s ensemble plays characters from Usher’s life, such as his loving but religiously homophobic mother, his indignant drunkard father, and a racist, hookup-organizing libertine named “Inwood Daddy.” These are characters both from Usher’s real and imagined life and reflect parts of his character, all contributing a mosaic of his personality, backstory and identity that, by the show’s end, forms a startling profile of how radical creativity is both encouraged and crushed by social and identity-based pressures. 

Currently staged in the historic Lyceum Theater in Times Square, “A Strange Loop” retains the raw, unadulterated sincerity of its original off-Broadway production. It often makes fun of its Broadway counterparts and, at one point, depicts a Broadway acolyte carrying a poster for “The Lion King” and raving about “Wicked.” Broadway plays, to retain mass commercial appeal, are often neutered of foul language, explicit sexual content and radical sociopolitical messaging; “A Strange Loop” not only utilizes but revels in all of these artistic decisions, crafting a narrative that doesn’t flinch from portraying racial slurs, visceral sexualization and overt discussion of anti-hegemonic philosophy. This unfiltered content is most often used for humor and tender sincerity, punctuating jokes with an outrageous expletive or underpinning an emotional moment; in the song “Second Wave,” Usher sings with complete honesty, “[T]he second-wave feminist in me/ Is at war with the d**k-sucking Black gay man.” Unfiltered delivery makes “A Strange Loop” hilarious and heartfelt, with the audience laughing at the scenarios and phrasing while sympathizing with the narrative content. Other times, the explicitness is used to shock and disconcert—in an early scene, Usher is talking to a white man on the train before the man’s dialogue abruptly shifts to overt racism and homophobia, degrading Usher in the most repugnant terms imaginable. The use of taboo content for both uplifting and unsettling tones cements “A Strange Loop” as a revolutionary disruption of Broadway’s norms and values. 

Just as interesting as the use of unflinching language is the heady philosophical content of the play. The show’s name references the “strange loop” theorem coined by American cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter (also, musician Liz Phair’s 1995 song of the same name). This theory suggests that the construction of individual identity is part of a string of symbolic images our mind intakes and rewrites around the “I,” eventually forming a personality made of actual events interpreted into narrative fiction cyclically rewritten with new suggestive photos. This theory suggests that we are all cognitively fiction writers constructing the “I.” The theory posits that a unified, continuous version of self is false; it’s mirrored brilliantly in Usher’s play-within-a-play, where, through writing about his experiences, he is actively relearning and reconstructing his identity, as expressed by author Douglas R. Hofstadter in the book “Gödel, Escher, Bach.”

The narrative of “A Strange Loop” is structured around thematic, piano-led motifs and smaller musical numbers, creating strong continuity and more interiority in Usher’s character. There are also excellent theatrical numbers, usually catchy glam rock like “Exile in Gayville” or orchestral melodic solos like “Boundaries.” Among the best songs of the show is “Tyler Perry Writes Real Life,” a tongue-in-cheek takedown of the titular creative where the spirits of Black historical figures such as Harriet Tubman, Zora Neale Huston, James Baldwin and Whitney Houston rise from the dead and accuse Usher of being a race traitor, set to dramatic rock-opera instrumentals. But for me, the show’s highlight is the seven-minute epic “Precious Little Dream / AIDS is God’s Punishment,” which punctuates the musical’s narrative and dramatic climax. The first half, “Precious Little Dream,” portrays an argument between Usher and his mother. Two minutes in, the stage suddenly draws forward, a massive, glowing red cross descends and Usher steps out dressed as a preacher, the rest of the cast dressed in silver choral robes. The second half of this number, “AIDS is God’s Punishment,” is a percussion-led ode to Black Gospel music, filled with Biblical allusions and religiosity blended with sardonic, self-critical homophobia. The song’s call-and-response provocations leave the audience uncomfortably drawn into a song promoting hatred and exclusion, proving the number’s point—that it’s scarily easy to support hate when you package it in spectacular presentation and a sense of community.

Michael R. Jackson’s fantastic writing and music are essential to conveying “A Strange Loop”’s intricate narrative, but the acting injected an element of pathos that truly engaged the viewer in Usher’s struggles. Usher’s understudy Kyle Ramar Freeman, the actor in our performance, completely embodied the role, physically and vocally exemplifying Usher’s low self-esteem and tortured sense of identity through his defensive posture and quiet lines, often broken by hysterical, explosive rants that sell Usher’s hidden brilliance. The rest of the ensemble’s acting was equally powerful. Among the most notable performances was by John-Andrew Morrison, who portrayed Usher’s mother with tortured earnestness in the impressive, four-minute solo performance “Periodically,” a bizarre amalgam of prayer, sermon, impassioned rant and vulnerable venting through the medium of voicemail. Also striking was Jason Veasey, who played Usher’s father with an uneasy deleteriousness that inspired tension every time he appeared—both versions of “Didn’t Want Nothing” were brief but powerful interludes carried by his foreboding delivery. 

“A Strange Loop” pushes many boundaries—but all the right ones. By setting up a complex dialogue between Usher—and Jackson’s—inner voices, both high and low, funny and full of pathos, the play captures so much of the complexity and humanity of life, especially where it concerns social identity and belongingness. With an all-Black cast, overt representation of queer life and a heady metanarrative, “A Strange Loop” is as sensational as it is culturally significant, both within Broadway history and by presenting voices that have never made it to the stage before. A special thanks to the Vassar College Ticket Fund and Campus Activities for arranging the viewing of this fantastic show, which will play its final Broadway performance on Jan. 15, 2023!


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