A Strange Loop, awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for drama transferred to Broadway this year after an Off Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons. The musical steps into the psyche and being of fat, Black, queer Usher and unapologetically opens the door into his life, dreams and realities as messy and screwed-up and admirable and heroic and amorphous and yearning as they are.
With book, music and lyrics by Michael R. Jackson, directed by Stephen Brackett and choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly, The Strange Loop is currently running at the Lyceum. The production is as particular as a feedback loop stuck on itself, rounding turns with robotic precision, speeding up and slowing down to begin where there is no beginning, and end, well, never. In a very weird and wonderful way, as we view the machinations of how a fat, Black queer deals with being a loathsome/cool fat Black queer, whether one is straight, white, 18-40 BMI female, age 20 and up, or 35- 75-year-old straight, white male 23-40 BMI, or slender Asian or Latina straight or gay male or female, 30-70 somethings, or any identifying LGBTQ individual of any age, shape and size, this satire about identity, sex, race, gender and inner self vs. outer self makes one belly laugh.
Maybe it’s the uber embarrassing put downs Usher sustains with hurt aplomb, reviewing “live” encounters in his imagination (i.e. with the wonderful Jason Veasey on the subway), which plays abusively cruel tricks on him and makes our souls beg for some surcease from the screaming self-torment in his raucous mind, which endears Usher to us. Though there is little to identify with physically, (there were very few fat, Black, queer men in the audience), if one strips away his exterior and listens to him, one identifies with Usher’s sufferings and the “rapid recyclying” thoughts that plague all of us in our incessant and irrevocable “glass is empty” humanity.
In this production, Usher stands before us naked without ego. Unlike us, he admits to humorous self-flagellation. Humorously, he actualizes it so we see his zany mania in all its immediacy, through the songs, gyrations, expansive gestures and verbal somersaults of his inner thoughts portrayed by six talented actors. These include: Thought 1 (L Morgan Lee), Thought 2 (James Jackson, Jr.), Thought 3 (John-Michael LYles), Thought 4 (John-Andrew Morrison), Thought 5 (Jason Veasey), Thought 6 (Antwayn Hopper). All are dressed to “kill him” with unkindness in various color coordinated costumes (designed by Montana Levi Blanco), switched up in the many scene changes. All of these crazies are humorous, exuberantly antic, wild, sassy, picky, aggressive, politically correct, negative, negative, negative.
What they are not is encouraging, uplifting, complimentary. Positive thoughts are not funny. Jackson is about funny insult comedy in A Strange Loop, which also, sometimes is not so funny. This is especially so when the self-humiliating protagonist Usher has the courage and raw desire to “let it all hang out,” including weathering insults about the size of his genitalia to garner LMAO laughs, as he trolls for sex partners on his phone apps (acted out by his thoughts, costumed for the occasion). It is also not funny when he attempts to sexually connect in a graphic, “sensual,” anal, sex scene (with Antwayn Hopper), evocatively staged with blue lighting (designed by Jen Schriever). The end result settles unromantically, poignantly, where he is left in an emotional void and alienating disconnect. We don’t laugh. We silently “take it in.”
The irony we are seduced by is that Usher is a creative who we watch in his creative process, writing a musical about a fat, Black queer-who writes a musical about a fat, Black queer…(continue the loop). Thus, it is an imperative that he embrace his inner wacko with relish, but is his own “straight man” in not cracking a smile as he undergoes his self-delivered smackdowns via his “Thoughts.” That insanity of six shouting manics is the foundation of his art and the subject humor of his misery with which he entertains. Thus, he must not psychoanalyze it away, meditate it away, zen it away or pill pop it away. His extremities of pain take precedence, so his comedic funny man stand-up, song-up can flourish. “Strange” is art, the weirder the better. And as we laugh at this clown, we salve our own inner hell.
In his Broadway debut, the superbly versatile Jaquel Spivey as Usher, whose funny bone is as large as his spirit, draws us in after the few minutes of chaos and boredom he experiences at his job as an usher at The Lion King, chiming the ridiculous miniature glockenspiel-ish bell to alert the audience to their proper protocol. But its Usher’s six soul derivations and tangling loopy thoughts, jangling against each other, ripping into him, bringing up his present condition of being nowhere in his career path as he attempts to write a “Big, Fat, Black, Queer Musical,” that will land him on Broadway. The irony here is absolutely mind-catching because the title of his musical is The Big Loop and here he is on Broadway.
Thus, not only is Jaquel Spivey’s Usher ushering us into a novel kind of weirdo that is all about the interior soul, it is also a joke on us, as Jackson wipes out every BS convention leveled by producers about why certain plays “won’t work” on Broadway or Off.
Well, this one does, with its themes and its representative musical score which is repetitive and driving, characteristic of a loop which Spivey’s Usher coherently describes and explains as he exposes his “bizarre” in real time. In all the commotion of his being, Usher, perhaps Jackson’s alter ego, is laughing the longest and hardest at audience members who are farthest away from the “EWWW fat, Black, gay” loser protagonist.
Spivey’s adorable portrayal is winning and likable because in presenting Usher’s extremely dire misery wryly and sardonically (with his imperfect, voice singing Jackson’s effervescent word crammed songs), we find ourselves tangled interactively in his loops. If we are as honest as Usher, we’ve been there, done that with our own six thought conveyors (maybe more), driving us nuts. And “dollars to donuts” the 20-something guys laughing like roaring lions behind me felt much of Usher’s pain and were thrilled to be able to laugh at him and themselves.
What Jackson gives us with his genius are the fantastic perspectives with which to view this character as he exposes his insults, slights, sword jabs in loopy repetitive three/four crescendoing note melodies that Usher internalized from the cultural, familial influences around him. In various scenes his thought posse, well dressed in appropriate attire shreds and pickles him as he rides the subway, checks out gay apps on his phone to get a boyfriend, visits his mom and dad who insist he write a religious Tyler Perry play, and confronts their censure about his gayness which they find unacceptable.
When the set changes into a Tyler Perry facsimile in a switch up from the neon boxes his thoughts move in and out of through most of the play, the moment happens at just the right time. Spivey’s Usher steps into Perryland, taking on various characters in Perry-type costumes and wigs to please his religious mother who he portrays in the Perry send up, as he sings her affirmation that “AIDS is God’s punishment for being gay,” rousing the audience to “clap along.”
Indeed, the loop has gone around once too many times into debasing self-destruction. Thus, eventually, Thought 4 (John-Andrew Morrison) who plays Usher’s mother in the play within a play, observing Usher’s religious Perry play, breaks the fourth wall and asks him something like, “isn’t this enough? When are you going to let these people go home?” (not the exact quote, but near the meaning)
However, it’s not done; the loop continues. There’s more laughter and amazement to come because Usher is a frenzy of pain and giddiness, with fragmented memories of his father, fearful that Usher might be attracted to him, and his mother telling him she loves him.
Usher can’t process it, but he can reveal it. And somehow that is enough. Perhaps at some point he will “get” that it’s OK, and all of this labyrinth need not be straightened out. Nor should he attempt to emerge from it to achieve “wholeness.” After all, this is his unique contribution and purpose to entertain. If we can laugh about “it” and “him,” then so can he, even though his thoughts may not quite be in the mood to laugh at themselves. But he is his own archetype, an “every person,” so he can bear with that, too.
Kudos to Arnulfo Maldonado’s flexible, seamless multi-faceted scenic design which brings fresh perspective to each, swift scene change, as supple as Usher’s thoughts. Praise must also be given to Drew Levy’s sound design, Cookie Jordan (Hair, Wig, and Makeup Design), Michael R. Jackson (vocal arrangements), Tomoko Akaboshi (music coordinator), Chelsea Pace (intimacy director).
You should see this well-deserved awarded play that has garnered 11 Tony nominations. This is especially so if you need to laugh at yourself. Who doesn’t? For tickets and times go to their website: https://strangeloopmusical.com/