Allow Usher, the central only? character of Michael R. Jackson's scathingly funny and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, to introduce himself.
He is, according to him, a young obese-to-obese homosexual and/or gay and/or queer, cisgender male, able-bodied university-and-graduate-school educated, musical theater writing, Disney ushering, and a broken-ass middle-class politically homeless normie leftist Black American descendant of slaves, who thinks he's probably a vers bottom but not entirely certain of that obsessing over the latest draft of his
Strange Loop's Usher, a Broadway newcomer, plays a famous Lion King role while he writes a musical about a Black gay man who is writing a musical about a Black gay man.
Spivey is not the only performer who is surrounded by those "extremely obnoxious thoughts" that swirl through his brain, never giving him a moment's peace. One is the voice of Daily Self-Loathing, another is the Supervisor of Sexual Ambivalence, an aptly named Fairweather, and various hookup dates, and other internal monitors who tell him he isn't Black enough or gay enough or thin enough or can earn enough money.
And then there are his politically and religiously conservative Mom and Dad, constantly yelling in his head about sin and hell and AIDS and beseeking him to play a nice gospel musical like Tyler Perry (or "Toxic Tyler Perry," as Usher calls it the mogul; we'll see more, much more, before Strange Loop calls it a day).
A Strange Loop, which is fluidly directed by Stephen Brackett, with Raja Feather Kelly's clever choreography extinguishing Jackson's gloriously brash performance, has us holding back. It's only because Jackson has already made his points so clearly, pointedly, and convincingly.
Usher explains it early on about the title:
It's a cognitive science term that was coined by Douglas Hofstadter. It's basically how your self self is a kind of paradox. Because how your ability to conceive of yourself as an "I" is just an illusion-cycle of meaningless symbols in your brain that transition from one level of abstraction to another, but always end up right back where they are. Yes, I don't feel it completely. But it's also the name of this Liz Phair song that I love.
As Usher's hopes and interests loop in on themselves and all that looping really is a pleasure to see the musical presents a complex portrait of a singular creation (by a singular new theatrical voice) that resists every effort (including Usher's own) to categorize.
The short explanation of Usher's musical is breathlessly delivered to a very promising hook-up partner who is genuinely careful of Usher's aspirations (and finds him irresistibly sexy). I have an enormous pink cock, a complete bush, and insanely low hanging balls that you will never experience. And the fact that you would allow yourself even a moment of weakness to fantasize about a dick appointment with a power top like me is a testament to the awesome power
In his re-elections of the groups that, in a perfect world, would be Usher's natural friends, like the gay community, where racism is as egregious as in any other society (certainly the theater community); Black contemporaries who disdain Usher and the "white girl" pop music he loves, and Harriet Tubman, a family whose homophobia is deeper than love, and even The Ancestors, who, in one stand-out scene, are
In fact, the Ancestors are particularly chastised in their chastisement of Usher for his refusing of him, which everyone from his mother to his agent seems to hold up as the epitome of what Usher wants. Here are the Ancestors who speak out in unison: Tyler Perry writes real life. He writes stories we can swallow like Popeyes chicken and biscuits. He does not, however, waste time writing musicals about musicals.
The loose narrative of Strange Loop builds to both a decision Usher has been offered a job specializing in a new gospel musical for Perry. Similarly, the scene, with Spivey-as-Perry-As-Medea strange loops indeed, is as devastating as it is funny, and as profound as the imagined encounter with the thirst-trap racist. Jackson takes no prisoners in his denunciation of "Toxic Tyler" and the deep, deep homobi that follows Southern
Spivey, in this scene and throughout the musical, is a marvel of dexterity, moving quickly and expertly from laughs to heartbreak, from music to monologue, and he's matched every step by a fantastic, mixed-gender, physically diverse ensemble that gives voice to the Thoughts and parents and the hook-ups (one of the latter even enacting a simulated and profound sex).
These Thoughts, played by Antwayn Hopper, L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, James Jackson, Jr., John-Andrew Morrison, and Jason Veasey, make for a fantastic theatrical company. You wouldn't want them whispering in your ear 24/7, but you'll be glad Jackson and Spivey are there to convey their messages with such exceptional humanity. Usher might not ever escape them, but he'll never stop trying, and that's something