A Strange Loop
It is truly awe-inspiring to consider all the awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, that Michael R. Jackson has already earned for his extraordinary new musical “A Strange Loop,” now finally getting its well-deserved Broadway bow at the Lyceum Theater under Stephen Brackett’s superb direction. But I don’t think there’s been a trophy invented yet for the honor Jackson most truly deserves: “Most Honest Playwright Ever.”
Just minutes into this audacious 100-minute show, Jackson’s protagonist Usher (the utterly remarkable Jaquel Spivey) – an usher at a long-running Disney show who is desperately trying to write an autobiographical musical called “A Strange Loop” -- expresses these thoughts out loud: “No one cares about a writer who is struggling to write/they’ll say it’s repetitious/and overly ambitious.”
Indeed, you may be initially inclined to believe him -- except that Jackson proves fairly quickly that it’s almost impossible not to care deeply about Usher. A self-proclaimed black, queer and ugly man, Usher has let his own damaged self-perceptions, his constant concern with societal expectations, his semi-forbidden love of his “inner white girl,” and, above all, his unresolved relationship with his church-loving, Tyler Perry-worshipping, AIDS-fearing Southern parents block all forms of authentic personal expression.
His situation is enough to earn our compassion, but we truly come to care about Usher because of the many heart-rendering, strongly felt words that pour out of his mouth, both in trenchant dialogue and in Jackson’s superb score. Moreover, making our heart break piece by piece is the incredibly expressive Spivey – the only member of the cast not from the show’s acclaimed 2019 production at Playwrights Horizons – who makes a Broadway debut that is likely to be talked about for years to come. Whatever self-confidence Usher may lack, Spivey clearly does not.
Still, to paraphrase a lyric from Broadway’s “Chicago”: He just can’t do it alone. Spivey is almost constantly surrounded by a superb ensemble of six actors (Antawyn Hopper, James Jackson Jr., L. Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison and Jason Veasey) who seamlessly portray both the damaging thoughts inside Usher’s head, along with a wide variety of characters (white and black) with whom he interacts -- from a race-playing sex trick to a variety of theater patrons, and, above all, Usher’s impossibly dysfunctional family. Costumed sometimes simply, sometimes skimpily and sometimes elaborately by the great Montana Levi Blanco and executing Raja Feather Kelly’s consistently clever choreography on Arnulto Maldonado’s seemingly sparse set, these versatile performers deserve a show of their own.
True, I suspect there will be more than a few theatergoers who will not appreciate watching this journey of self-doubt, self-loathing and eventual self-acceptance, and not just because they will find the piece too self-indulgent. The show will undoubtedly be offensive to some audience members due to its frequent use of the ‘N’ word, more four-letter words than any David Mamet script, and a shockingly realistic simulation of gay anal sex (not to mention an insult about Beyonce).
But sadly, those who favor form over substance will miss out on the singular brilliance of this unusual piece. Whether or not you’ve made an ill-considered booty call at midnight, faced parental disapproval, or been professionally rejected by Liz Phair, “A Strange Loop” is likely to resonate with anyone who has struggled (or is still struggling) to accept one’s own truth and make one’s own way in the world. Say Amen!
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Antwayn Hopper, L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, James Jackson, Jr., John-Andrew Morrison, Jaquel Spivey , Jason Veasey
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