Michael R. Jackson, the living playwright, not to be confused with Michael Jackson the dead pop star, has written a new somewhat autobiographical musical A Strange Loop that is having its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons. But don’t discount the dead pop star angle too quickly. Being a young, black, queer, musical theater writer with the name of one of the most (in)famous pop music legends of the last 50 years whose self-identification as being either black or queer was always a subject for pubic speculation, has led Mr. Jackson to take a hard look at his own identity.
Add Mr. Jackson’s willingness to plumb his own experience and examine it publicly, with his interest in the “strange loop” phenomenon coined by cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter that examines moving through an upward or downward hierarchy (or linked ideas) that ends one at exactly where one began, and you’ve got a brave new musical.
A Strange Loop begins with our protagonist Usher (Larry Owens), who is actually an usher, calling the audience back to its seats after intermission during a performance of The Lion King:
“Ladies and gentlemen, please return to your seats; the second act is about to begin! Ladies and gentlemen, please return to your seats; the second act is about to begin! There will be performers running down the aisles and wearing pantaloons… What else? Oh, yes! In the background, there will be 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 far left-leaning black-identified and classified American descendant of slaves full of self-conscious femme energy and who thinks he’s probably a vers bottom but not totally certain of that obsessing over the latest draft of his self-referential musical A Strange Loop! And surrounded by his extremely obnoxious Thoughts.”
The musical is essentially a dialog between Usher and his Thoughts (Antwayn Hopper; James Jackson, Jr.; L Morgan Lee; John-Michael Lyles; John-Andrew Morrison and Jason Veasey) as he struggles to write his “big, black and queer-ass American Broadway Show.” Where A Strange Loop diverges from the run-of-the-mill Broadway musical, is that after looking at himself in the mirror of society as reflected back to him by his Thoughts, there’s no neat, happy resolution in the end. Back with himself where he started, he has no definitive answer for what his truth might be.
While A Strange Loop is clever and funny, it is also very raw and not for the faint of heart. Jackson pulls no punches in his language or his exploration of Usher’s experiences. He challenges the audience not to flinch in accepting Usher’s reality and it can feel like the scene of an accident. You can’t look but you can’t look away. Unfortunately, the music is not on the same level as the book and the lyrics. Out of the 18 musical numbers, there isn’t one that I walked out of the theater humming or even really loved while I was listening. Perhaps now that he’s done this intensely personal piece, Jackson can loosen the tight creative grip he utilized on A Strange Loop by writing the music, book and lyrics by himself, and collaborate with someone on the next piece... and realize his “big, black and queer-ass American Broadway Show.”
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
"Navel-gazing becomes a highly invasive procedure — a full-on laparoscopy of the heart, soul and loins — in Michael R. Jackson's A Strange Loop, which opened on Monday at Playwrights Horizons. This jubilantly anguished musical burrows so deep into the shadows of its hero’s tormented mind that you wonder if it will ever emerge into the light. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"By the end of the radiant, furious, exhausting metamusical A Strange Loop, the show has worn itself completely out. The performers totter as they take their bows; there’s no leftover curtain-call razzmatazz. Its blazing star, Larry Owens, is barely offstage the entire time—when he is, it’s for a quick change—and you can hear the weariness in his voice as he gives his last ounce of energy to his final song. Michael R. Jackson’s roller-coaster “Big Black and Queer-Ass American Broadway” creation asks impossible things of its writer (a shattering level of self-examination and rude candor), its lead actor (Owens flays himself alive) and, not least, from its audience. It doesn’t end, exactly, so much as it pushes to its outer limit of endurance."
Helen Shaw for Time Out New York
"A Strange Loop is genuinely breathtaking because it forces you to gasp before you break out laughing. It’s also a brilliant antidote to musicals like The Color Purple and the recent The Secret Life of Bees, which lets us know God created black people to take care of the white Miss Annes of this world."
Robert Hofler for The Wrap
"“No one cares about a writer who is struggling to write,” sings the anxiety-ridden lead character in Michael R. Jackson’s sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exasperating new musical, A Strange Loop, at Playwrights Horizons. The abundantly talented Jackson takes the otherwise tired trope of the young, poor and sensitive artist trying to discover his true self and make it in New York, then adds layer upon layer of personal angst from a fresh and startling perspective."
Frank Rizzo for Variety