In the soul of Michael R. Jackson’s in-your-face, scorching new musical A STRANGE LOOP is a most tender post-adolescent, coming-of-age story. Getting there on the journey with Jackson’s protagonist, Usher (an astonishing Larry Owens), a 25 year old gay African American writing a musical about a 25 year old gay African American writing a musical, is perhaps the most candid and rawest depiction of self-discovery that’s ever been a musical.
Stuffed into Roxy usher uniform, complete with bellboy-style cap, the overweight Usher introduces himself in the opening number “A Disney Usher” along with a six member chorus (all Black, all male except one) as his Thoughts 1 -6. Citing cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, Usher declares he’s a strange loop; his sense of “I” is based on “a set of meaningless symbols in your brain pushing up or down through one level of abstraction to another but always winding up right back where they started.” He’s psychologically and emotionally trapped, on a “hamster wheel” as his Inner Thoughts point out.
Usher’s a sexual nowhere man, frustrated, ambivalent, inactive and HIV-phobic all at the same time. All of gay New York, it seems, is on Truvada (the popular HIV preventative) except him; he’s admonished by his physician for not getting laid in over a year. Usher escapes into the delusional, safe-haven of the mindset of a white girl which he celebrates in a number called “Inner White Girl” because “white girls can be anything… black boys must always obey their mothers.” He’s a self-outcast; in “Exile in Gayville” his Inner Thoughts berate him as “too black, too fat, too feminine”, plus “your dick is too small too.” Awash in self-loathing, he stupidlly tries “to change my life” with a Grindr hook-up; he gets pounded (doggy style) by an older white guy on meth in a duet called “Inwood Daddy”. (Amazingly, this number works.) After the depersonalizing, nasty assignation, he reaches emotional bottom in the ballad “Boundaries”; he’s more alone and more self-loathing than before.
Even though Usher’s a “queer-ass American Broadway queen”, his musical is going nowhere. His inner Guardians of Musical Theatre Centrism Tribunal disapproves of his uncompromising dramatic aspirations as too radical, too personal, too Black. Desperate for work and burdened by NYU loan debt, he grudgingly accepts ghost writing a gospel play for Tyler Perry, whose work he dismisses as not Black enough. His conflicting Inner Thoughts scold that at least Perry is “making niggers jobs and money”. Fantasized visitations by African American male role-models, like slave Solomon Northup of“12 Years a Slave” or gay literary luminary James Baldwin fail to motivate. Writer's block, pity party, and shitshow compete for running his head.
Returning to his Baptist household in Detroit - in his mind - he confronts a distant, disapproving father (“I don’t condone that gay stuff… now what about those student loans”) and domineering, fundamentalist Christian mother. His efforts to exploit his own family’s scandals to conform to Tyler Perry-style melodrama end up cliché. He’s haunted by memories of being taunted in school (“too fat, too feminine”) and the death from AIDS of his boyhood BFF. In a stunning, cathartic musical climax, Usher unleashes his anger , aimed mostly at his mother, amidst a church gospel choir rollicking to “AIDS is God’s Punishment” over the casket of his boyhood buddy, one of “all those black gay boys I knew who chose to go on back to the Lord” (to whom Jackson has dedicated his play).
Jackson’s dialogue is unapologetically, sexually unfiltered in its African American urban-speak, punctuated by rap. The book and lyrics meld seamlessly in and out of 18 musical numbers. The score is fabulous; some numbers smack of Broadway show tunes (naturally for a story about a Broadway queen), most are rap or hip-hop in style, with traces of club and disco, but they are all of one, coherent musical voice. Jackson’s high point is the soaring gospel ensemble that is, at once, both lacerating satire and redemptive inspiration.
Usher’s Inner Thoughts chorus, which takes on multiple roles as real and imagined figures in his New York life and family members in Detroit, is uniformly excellent. Special kudos, though, are due John-Andrew Morrison who plays Usher’s mom and Jason Veasy who plays a studly, subway hook-up fantasy.
Stephen Brackett directs, secure in the rhythms integral to Jackson’s book and score. Brackett’s pacing is super-charged by Raja Feather Kelly’s fluid choreography that keeps STRANGE LOOP in constant motion. Arnulfo Maldonado’s scenic design, augmented by Jen Schriever's apt lighting, shifts stylistically from the impersonal, drab, abstract environs of Usher’s vacant New York life to the realistically detailed, nitty-gritty memories of his family home in Detroit, which he must confront.
Enough cannot be said about the lead performance of Larry Owens. He’s on for all of the intermissionless, non-stop 1hour and 45 minutes. It’s ironic that Owen is playing such an insecure, self-loathing character because his is a most assured performance. His acting conveys all the I-can’t-out-of-my-own-way pathos of Effie in "Dreamgirls"; his singing - of a vocally demanding score - recalls Luther Vandross. In the end, change don’t come easy. Owens brings Usher powerfully to the painful realization of what it takes to break his strange loop and get on with his self for real. Will he?
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