In cognitive science, a "strange loop" is a cyclic structure that causes someone or something to end up back where it started, by only moving upwards or downwards through the system. In other words: a möbius strip. "A Strange Loop" is also a song by singer Liz Phair.
But more presently A Strange Loop is the critically acclaimed musical written by Michael R. Jackson (no relation) and starring Jaquel Spivey. Nominated for the most Tony Awards of any show this season (11) including Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Book of a Musical, A Strange Loop tells the story of Usher, a Black, Queer, large bodied writer who is writing a musical about a Black, Queer, large-bodied writer, writing a musical about a Black, Queer, large-bodied writer etc. Within that loop, the show explores Usher's relationship to his sexuality, the gay community, the Black community, the Black gay community, his family, and his Christian faith. If it sounds incredibly layered it IS! But in the hands of Michael R. Jackson and the entire team of A Strange Loop it is all handled exceptionally dexterously.
The layers within layers are seen at every twist of this homöbius strip (let's get #HomöbiusStrip trending. Thx.). At the start of the musical, Usher introduces us to his Thoughts. The six Thoughts act as a Greek Chorus of sorts, and they give us an inside look into Usher's psyche and the loop of intrusive thoughts that hold him back. These Thoughts are all formed by his life's experiences, which in turn impact his future life experiences, which in turn impact the way he forms his Thoughts. The layers within layers continue even further. Usher, whose day job is quite literally as an usher for the musical The Lion King, and as such Jackson has named the family members Mufasa, Sarabi, Rafiki, and Scar. This helps us not only remember who each person is, but gives us an immediate insight into their role in Usher's psyche.
This is a uniquely personal story being told. Usher is a Black, Christian, Queer, large-bodied, writer working in the theatre. Some people can connect with one of those aspects, some with multiple, and no doubt a few who connect with all of them. But most people in the world do not identify with any of them. This story is so incredibly personal that at times, if a plot point didn't go the way I wanted it to, or if the character didn't respond to a circumstance the way I would have, I didn't mind. Usually when that happens, I think, "Ugh. This SHOULD go this way." Or, "Ugh. I would have responded like THIS!" But the incredibly personal nature of this show had me on multiple occasions thinking, "Wow. This character is incredible. I'm so lucky to be hearing his story."
And even if you can't identify with any of the specifics of the plot points, the way Usher feels about so many aspects of life, the way his relationship to his inner Thoughts impacts his daily well-being... those are things to which anyone can relate. In an interview with Playbill, Jackson recalled an experience he had when the show had its Off-Broadway world premiere at Playwrights Horizon in NYC. “I remember two old, Jewish women stopped us after the first performance and they were like, ‘Oh my God. That’s my story.’ And we were like, ‘Oh, girl, no. It’s not.’ But they said, ‘No, that was my mother. That was my family.’ They relate to it. A family is a family. A career is a career."
There are absolutely universal themes with which we can all connect—themes like shame, and how it impacts who we are, particularly as Queer people who grew up in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic. AIDS plays a large role in Usher's sexual identity, in no small part due to the fact that his cousin died of the disease. The family constantly references the cousin's death, warning Usher that he's going to end up just like him if he keeps on with his "homosexualities." His cousin's death was facilitated by his own shame, too. Being told by everyone in his life that being gay was a sin made the cousin feel such shame that he felt that he deserved to die for these sins. And not only that he deserved to die, but that death would be an easier existence than hearing everyone constantly tell him, "you got AIDS because god is punishing you." He chose to not take his AIDS medication because to him death was the correct alternative. Again: his Christian faith impacted his relationship to his sexuality; his sexuality impacted his relationship to his family; his family's relationship to his sexuality impacted how he handled AIDS; his death from AIDS impacted how his family handled Usher; Usher's relationship to his family impacts his relationship to this sexuality, and all of these impact his relationship to his connection with his "Inner White Girl"... the homöbius strip continues.
Something else that was an incredible palate cleanser for me was Jackson's unapologetic mocking of people and institutions that are considered sacred in America. For one thing, Jackson isn't afraid to tackle the sacredness of your average theatergoer's sensibilities. A Strange Loop features conversations and lyrics alike that reference anal sex, fissures, prolapsed assholes, Grindr, and poppers on multiple occasions. And for a show that is rooted in his own fears of offending sacredness, Jackson takes to task the holiest of holies. Jackson takes on Beyonce, who he refers to as "a pop culture terrorist", The Lion King (the bain of his existence), Hamilton ("Did you see ‘Hamilton’?" Lee’s Thought 1, dressed up as an high society theatre patron, asks Usher. “I’m poor,” Usher replies), and the king of Black, Queer, Religious everythings, Tyler Perry. Perry plays a particularly large role in A Strange Loop. Usher's family tells him on multiple occasions that his writing should be more like Tyler Perry's. This all finally comes to blows when Usher turns down the offer to ghost write for a new Tyler Perry musical. “Nothing that he writes seems real to me,” Usher sings, “just simple-minded hack buffoonery.” The song is mockingly called “Tyler Perry Writes Real Life."
If you're Queer, you'll love this musical. If you're Black, you'll love this musical. If you have ever struggled with faith, you'll love this musical. If you're large-bodied, you'll love this musical. And if you're none of those things, but love when people tell their personal stories exceptionally well, then you're REALLY going to love this musical. A Strange Loop is now showing at the Lyceum Theatre in New York City. You can get your tickets here.
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