“WOW!” I thought to myself as my body leapt to its feet on its own volition to applaud A Strange Loop. “This must be how people who saw the first performances of Show Boat, Oklahoma!, Company, Rent, or Hamilton felt.” Though I’ve witnessed and studied the innovations in each of those musicals, none of them are as revolutionary as what Michael R. Jackson has accomplished with his Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, now making its Broadway debut.
That is thanks to his splendid writing and craftsmanship, as well as flawless and often shocking performances given by the cast ― including a fresh-out-of-college leading man, Jaquel Spivey, in his Broadway debut.
Spivey plays Usher, a Black, gay man who, while working as a Broadway usher and ghostwriting a Tyler Perry play to make money, is trying to finish his musical about a Black gay man who is writing a musical, ad infinitum. The problem is he doesn’t know how to complete the story. The further he dives, the more aware and eager each new iteration of himself becomes to sabotage the process.
Those interruptions manifest onstage as vicious thoughts who gleefully shred Usher’s confidence. They transform into warped versions of his family and reenact humiliating sexual encounters, while reminding him that he is own worst enemy and pushing him to embrace the truth behind why he has put this entire enterprise together.
As Thought #2 (James Jackson Jr., an extravagant wit who burns through every scene with the force of a supernova) inquires after Usher figuratively torches the stage, “Real life is making hateful anti-Black caricatures in a Tyler Perry-style gospel play?” That is in response to Usher’s staging of a funeral for his cousin Darnell, who refused to take HIV medication because his church-fueled self-hate taught him AIDS was God’s punishment for being gay.
Much like Jackson, whose best friend died for the same reason in real life, Usher is haunted by the senselessness of that death as well as the hypocrisy of the church, modern families, and queer culture, all of which abet this ongoing health crisis without working to stop such tragedies. As Jackson told me in an interview after he won the Pulitzer, his mission is to destroy HIV stigma and to ensure no one else suffers as his friend did. Rather than pen an angry op-ed, with A Strange Loop, he uses devastating lampoons on popular culture and revolutionizes the conventions of musical theatre to make audiences investigate where their own loathing began.
In his meditative 11 o’clock number, “Memory Song,” Usher shepherds us through his own conversion into “one lone Black gay boy I knew who chose to turn his back on the Lord.” In revealing a version of his own life story through Usher, Jackson tells us it does not have to be this way. We don’t have to become enmeshed in the self-perpetuating loop of trauma and abuse; we can turn our backs on the fears that lord over us and do the much scarier thing: figure out how to live without destroying one another.
A Strange Loop’s director Stephen Brackett and choreographer Raja Feather Kelly bravely punctuate each perverse and revelatory ode that Jackson has penned into his work. But none of this would be possible without the phenomenal cast, who count as the funniest and most thrilling group of singers currently on Broadway. Chief among them, L Morgan Lee, James Jackson Jr., and John-Andrew Morrison provide sensational vocals and painfully hilarious personifications of Jackson’s thoughts.
Spivey ― who is vulnerable, sassy, inquisitive, and incendiary ― grounds their work, not because he overwhelms the stage through sheer power and vocal charisma, but because he knows how to pull back and allow us to come to him. His performance is a conversation between his onstage partners and the audience that shows us we will fail, and we can try again until we finally overcome our own strange loop. This is art as activism in its highest form.
Photo credit: Jason Veasey (Thought 5), James Jackson, Jr. (Thought 2), Jaquel Spivey (Usher), L Morgan Lee (Thought 1), and Antwayn Hopper (Thought 6) in A Strange Loop. (Photo by Marc J. Franklin)