A Strange Loop: Powerful
“One Lone gay black boy who chose to turn his back on the Lord”
Lyric from Memory Song
If A Strange Loop is anything to go by, Michael R Jackson, the show’s creator and writer, is a troubled man. His musical is a self-reflective tale of a young gay black man called Usher who happens to be an usher at the Broadway production of The Lion King.
Usher is writing a musical about a young gay black man working as an usher at a Broadway musical who’s writing a musical about a young gay black man…. And so, the strange loop manifests.The story takes place during the intermission of The Lion King, and we’re confronted with Usher’s various distractions as he’s doing his mind-numbingly boring job. His Thoughts are sprawling but anchored in the challenges he’s having in writing his musical.
The gay black (and overweight) protagonist is himself and in writing this, he’s opening himself up for public scrutiny. His thoughts, played out by the ensemble cast, reflect the significant insecurities he has about himself and his life: Being gay. Being black, Being overweight. Not being who is parents want him to be. Not being who he wants to be.
His thoughts focus on his self-loathing, his financial woes, his sexual insecurities, his religious conflicts. Each eats away at him while his circle of family and friends pressure him to be different as a person and as a writer.
Whilst, at times, laugh out loud funny, A Strange Loop is ultimately a tragic look at how one person’s self-impression is their own worst enemy. Usher is conflicted, frustrated, embarrassed by himself and ultimately unhappy in life. His job is boring, but his exit strategy (writing his musical) is making him look deep and hard at himself, and the image he sees is not good.
The cast deliver exceptional performances. Kyle Ramar Freeman, reprising his Broadway role, is mesmerising as Usher and the ensemble, who take on duties as his various thoughts, family members and other characters, all deliver solid and impactful performances. The strong American, and specifically black American, language and accents can take a bit of getting used to, especially in some of the more quick-fire dialogues. And the significant use of Black American and gay culture references may leave some audience members baffled, though not enough to derail you from the overriding narrative.
A Strange Loop garnered a great deal of praise for its Broadway run and came away with a nice collection of prizes to boot, including a couple of Tonys and a Pulitzer. Despite this, and despite a celebrity laden social media campaign to get more people to see it, it didn’t manage to extend its stay beyond its original run. And it’s easy to see why.
The subject matter is rather niche; how many regular theatre goers are going to choose to watch a self-loathing overweight gay black man espouse his insecurities? Then there’s the language. The show is very R-rated; sexual and racial profanities are used with (ahem) gay abandon… and if you find the c-word offensive, be prepared to keep your ears covered for a number of sections. If that’s not enough, the actual music is somewhat lacklustre – you’d be hard pushed to recall a single melody by the time you reach the exit doors.
But these, perversely, are the reasons why people should see it. For all of its flaws, what A Strange Loop does is shine an unflinching light at a very particular person’s journey. It may not be a journey we’re on or one we can easily associate with, but it’s still a very real and valid one.
It showcases it with raw, unfiltered emotion and, in doing so, gives the audience such a deep understanding of their situation. Like Usher’s thoughts the story jumps around frenetically, giving us glimpses into the various demons that reside in his head. Also, like his thoughts, the music isn’t anchored in a single form, nor is it always easy or pleasant to listen to.
At the end of it, A Strange Loop is not a great musical. It may not even be a very good musical. But it is an important one. It puts Blackness and Queerness front and centre. It does so with a warts-and-all attitude that gives us all an insight as to how one’s self-image and insecurities are the true saboteurs to our happiness and success. And whilst we may not relate to the race, religion, sexuality of this story, everyone can relate to the gnawing impact of one’s own self-destructive thoughts.
“Inner White Girl”
“Didn’t Want Nothin'”
“Exile in Gayville”
“Tyler Perry Writes Real Life”
“Writing a Gospel Play”
“A Sympathetic Ear”
“Didn’t Want Nothin’ Reprise”
“Precious Little Dream / AIDS Is God’s Punishment”
“A Strange Loop”
A Strange Loop
Playwright, Composer, Lyricist Michael R Jackson
Directed by Stephen Brackett
Kyle Ramar Freeman
Tendai Humphrey Sitima
Rebecca Bernice Amissah
Director: Stephen Brackett
Choreographer: Raja Feather Kelly
Running Time: One hour 40 minutes without an interval
Booking until 9th September 2023
London EC2Y 8DS
Barbican Website: www.barbican.org.uk
Tube: Barbican or Moorgate
Reviewed by Sonny Waheed
at the Barbican Theatre on 29th June 2023