Subjectivity is conditional. We can only understand our own points of view in relation to the differences that separate us. If art often intends to complete the circle (“look at how these other people live!”), “A Strange Loop” unravels it down to the barest threads to ask who the hell we think we are. The new musical by Michael R. Jackson performs a phenomenal feat — it is both a raw and unflinching interrogation of identity and the most furiously entertaining show on Broadway.
What is it like to be fat, Black and queer? What would it mean to make a musical about that, and sell it to a Broadway audience? “A Strange Loop,” which was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for drama following an Off Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons, is a probing and free-wheeling explosion of the form. It’s political only in the sense that some people consider being fat, Black and queer as hostile to convention. And it’s brave only insofar as it’s unafraid to be honest about how that feels.
Usher (Jaquel Spivey, in a remarkable Broadway debut) is himself a Broadway usher, counting down intermissions for wealthy patrons at “The Lion King.” A proxy for Jackson, Usher is also an aspiring musical theater writer, working on a show about an aspiring musical theater writer, and so on into the mirror’s receding reflection. And he’s plagued by some fabulously harsh demons.
Usher’s thoughts are his constant nagging companions, a chorus of six who embody the forces that prod and shape him, including his mother and father and their relentlessly taxing demands. With choreography by Raja Feather Kelly, and dressed in blush-pink streetwear from costume designer Montana Levi Blanco, the ensemble of thoughts are deliciously expressive, reading Usher for filth with a smile. “How you doin’?” asks Usher’s Daily Self-Loathing (James Jackson, Jr.) in the voice of Wendy Williams. “I thought I’d drop in to remind you how truly worthless you are.” It would be devastating if it weren’t so startlingly funny. Or is it the other way around?
The extremity of Jackson’s vulnerability as a creator, peeling back the layers of his own experience to expose trembling nerves, is what gives “A Strange Loop” both its wicked humor and bracing bite. There is deep pain, for example, in the sexual-rejection romp “Exile in Gayville,” where Usher is told he’s too Black, too fat and too femme by a barrage of men on hook-up apps with their own put-on personas. Racial and sexual alienation has rarely been so eloquently, and hilariously, captured; “A Strange Loop” does not strike a single false note.
Even truth can be subjective, but “A Strange Loop” doesn’t stoop or pander to solicit understanding and empathy. Undoubtedly there are details that may elude typical (read: white, straight, affluent) Broadway theatergoers, language and references specific to Black and/or queer culture presented here without explanatory commas. While “A Strange Loop” may feel “radical” to some (in the parlance of Usher’s mom), to others it will be a rare and revolutionary moment of recognition.
It also marks a meta sort of triumph, for a striver who tells us he wants to create a “big Black and queer-ass American Broadway show.” This production of “A Strange Loop,” from the original director Stephen Brackett, has been scaled up to be just that. There’s more polish to the black-brick doorways and succession of light-lined prosceniums that frame the stage, a richer atmosphere to the hazy planes of color that vivify Usher’s psyche (set design is by Arnulfo Maldonado and lighting by Jen Schriever).
Jackson’s self-conscious caricatures of Blackness also ratchet up to fill the space, playfully daring audiences of any color to respond. (I found myself looking around to see who was laughing at what and why.) A gesture from the stage to clap along to “AIDS Is God’s Punishment,” the musical’s gospel climax nestled within a Tyler Perry parody, felt like a trap. (Those who fell into it stopped after a few giddy-queasy beats.) Already intentional and self-aware about its position as a commercial piece of Black art, on Broadway “A Strange Loop” packs an even more forceful elbow to the ribs.
Or in Spivey’s case, an eyes-to-camera, upturned expression that says, “Oh yes, that’s right, I see you.” A recent college graduate stepping into a career-making role, Spivey is a wonderfully dynamic, expressive performer and impossible not to root for. His Usher is wounded and searching, unsure of what he’ll find but resigned to keep drilling inward. Spivey finds the comedy in suffering rather than using it as a defense, a sophisticated posture to sustain while also leading an audience through the maze of his character’s mind.
“A Strange Loop” is heady and wordy; Jackson’s score is more linguistically than musically inventive, and it’s an unfortunate consequence that some lyrics get swallowed up in the larger space. There’s a feeling of surfeit messiness, like a sprung-open closet whose chaotic contents fill the room, that a Broadway house allows audiences to appreciate with greater perspective. It’s like stepping back to admire an extraordinary portrait of the artist as a tangle of contradictions, desires and painful memories. In other words, it’s like the experience of life itself.