NEW YORK — I never thought I’d see anything on Broadway quite like “A Strange Loop,” Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical that probes the inner reality of a 26-year-old Black, queer artist who’s trying against the odds to transform his alienation into art.
For much of this triumphant, emotionally lacerating show, which had its official opening Tuesday at the Lyceum Theatre, I sat with my mouth agape, astonished and grateful that something so brutally honest and rigorously constructed had finally broken through to a Broadway stage.
“A Strange Loop” kaleidoscopically captures the struggle of a young artist named Usher (Jaquel Spivey in a titanic performance) who, like Jackson, is a musical theater scribe with an NYU pedigree. Usher’s name is also his job description: When we first meet him, he’s dressed in a red uniform and getting Broadway theatergoers into their seats for Act 2 of “The Lion King.”
Like Jonathan Larson’s surrogate in “Tick, Tick … Boom!,” Usher is in a desperate quest to write an original musical that will rescue him from poverty, obscurity and a looming sense of failure. His parents are questioning the point of his expensive education. He jokes that he can’t afford tickets to “Hamilton.” And his agent is proposing that he take a job as ghostwriter for one of Tyler Perry’s gospel shows, a career move that would go against everything he’s trying to achieve as an artist.
What’s this long-aborning show that he’s been torturing himself about? “Well,” Usher reluctantly explains, “it’s about a Black, gay man writing a musical about a Black, gay man who’s writing a musical about a Black, gay man who’s writing a musical about a Black, gay man, etc.”
This musical, which is the one we’re watching, is indeed a hall of mirrors. Or perhaps an autobiographical funhouse (of the kind that Adrienne Kennedy created in her landmark play “Funnyhouse of a Negro”) would serve as a better metaphor.
Usher, as though filling out his own Grindr profile, describes his protagonist as “a young overweight-to-obese homosexual and/or gay and/or queer, cisgender male, able-bodied university-and-graduate-school educated, musical theater writing, Disney ushering, broke-ass middle-class politically homeless normie leftist Black American descendant of slaves who thinks he’s probably a vers bottom.”
Surrounding Usher are personifications of his inner voices, six taunting denizens of his psyche that nag and mock, undermine and throw shade. Thought 2 (James Jackson Jr.) introduces himself as Usher’s Daily Self-Loathing. Thought 1 (L. Morgan Lee) represents Usher’s sexual ambivalence.
This chorus line of pernicious self-talk is rounded out by John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Jason Veasey and Antwayn Hopper. These performers, each one of them bringing distinctive vocal and theatrical individuality, give the musical a shapeshifting fluidity.
The queerness of “A Strange Loop” isn’t simply thematic. It’s built into the show’s architecture. The rigid boundaries of identity are blurred as the ensemble fleshes out the stories tumbling out of Usher’s pressure-cooker mind.
Memory and imagination merge. In the dreamscape of “A Strange Loop,” personal history bleeds into cultural politics. Black historical figures, such as Harriet Tubman and Marcus Garvey, indict Usher as a “race traitor” for acting superior to Tyler Perry.
Family members who don’t recognize their own homophobia are coopted into a scalding burlesque of a gospel play that erupts in a rousing chorus of “AIDS is God’s punishment.” The music is jubilant but the lyrics are satiric poison.
Jackson doesn’t make it easy for his audience, but why should he when the world hasn’t made it easy for him to be himself? In “A Strange Loop,” he is seeking new forms to express what the old forms have left out. But creation entails destruction. Existing tropes don’t fit his experience, but only through busting through them can he hope to discover an artistic vision large enough to contain his truth.
Spivey’s Usher commands the stage with the full force of his glorious difference. His clothes are raggedy, his body is large and his sweat is torrential. He fears he might smell because a morning meeting with his landlord prevented him from taking a shower.
Oh, and the performance just happens to be one of the most sensational of the Broadway season.
“A Strange Loop,” which had its premiere off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 2019, is directed by Stephen Brackett with agile precision. The slipperiness of this looping, self-referential work demands a vigorous level of theatrical control, which the production maintains even when the story momentarily gets stuck in a repetitive groove.
Raja Feather Kelly’s choreography looks relaxed but doesn’t miss a mark. The scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado situates us in a theatrical realm that is at the same time an interior space, the zone of one man’s consciousness.
Although bracingly unique (almost shockingly so during a punishing sex scene), the musical is part of a rich tradition. It’s hard to imagine “A Strange Loop” without Larson’s “Tick, Tick … Boom!,” Kirsten Childs’ “The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin” or even Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s “Company.”
The score is contemporary but in an eclectic Broadway fashion. What sets the show apart is the raw honesty of Jackson’s interrogation into his own marginalization. “A Strange Loop” derives its power from its fearless specificity.
In bearing witness to his own survival “in a world / that chews up and spits out / Black queers on the daily,” as the opening number puts it, Jackson liberates us from the homogeneity that deadens our theaters and leaves so many of us feeling alone. For those searching for reflections of themselves in culture, “A Strange Loop” offers the balm of community. Broadway has never felt so expansively welcoming.
Charles McNulty is the theater critic of the Los Angeles Times. He received his doctorate in dramaturgy and dramatic criticism from the Yale School of Drama.