The Advocate July/Aug 2022
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A Strange Loop Gets Into the Mind of Its Black Gay Protagonist 

A Strange Loop

A Strange Loop is likely to throw Broadway audiences for one — in an entertaining and enlightening way.

The musical play centers on the experiences of Usher, a queer Black man writing a musical about a queer Black man writing a musical, while working as a theater usher and being assailed by thoughts that threaten to undermine him. It’s already had two acclaimed productions and won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and it’s premiering on Broadway in April at the Lyceum Theatre, one of the first Broadway productions with a Black queer protagonist. And its cast is all LGBTQ+ people of color.

Deeply moving yet full of lacerating humor, A Strange Loop is the creation of Michael R. Jackson, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics. It originated with a monologue he composed 20 years ago, when he had just finished a bachelor’s degree in playwriting at New York University and was wondering what to do with his life.

“I started a monologue about a young gay man walking around New York City wondering why life was so terrible,” he says. The show that grew out of this monologue is self-referential rather than autobiographical, Jackson notes.

“I have felt everything Usher has felt, but it is not an apples-to-apples comparison,” the Detroit native says.

Usher feels insecurity and, at times, downright self-loathing, often caused by the rejection and criticism he’s experienced from various people in his life, such as his homophobic parents, who wish he’d “write a nice, clean Tyler Perry-like gospel play.” Usher has been rejected by other gay people as well, marginalized for being Black and, as he puts it, “overweight-to-obese.” Usher is played by Jaquel Spivey, while the thoughts echoing in his mind — and the people who’ve helped put them there — are personified by six other actors.

The play also touches on Usher’s love of “white girl music,” especially that of Liz Phair, Tori Amos, and Joni Mitchell, all artists whose work has resonated with Jackson. The title references Phair’s song “Strange Loop,” along with scientist Douglas Hofstadter's theory about how thoughts loop around in our consciousness.

A Strange Loop tells a story that is specific yet universal, Jackson says. “This is a musical about what it’s like to be a Black gay self in particular, but what it’s like to be a self in general,” he explains.

Director Stephen Brackett agrees. “I am a white gay man myself, but I know a version of what Usher is feeling,” he says. Brackett is directing the Broadway production after having helmed A Strange Loop at New York’s Playwrights Horizons in 2019 and Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre in 2021.

He praises the play for its “real bravura…and real sincere and lovely sense of longing.” He met Jackson about a decade ago, and, he says, “From that moment I was just completely blown away by how transparently he put himself out there in his writing.”

A Strange Loop’s actors also say the play is something special. “There’s something about the specificity and honesty of this show that really strikes me,” says John-Andrew Morrison, who plays Thought 4 and sings the song “Periodically,” in which Usher’s mother calls on him to renounce being gay. “I’ve never before been given a song as incredible as ‘Periodically,’ Morrison says.

Transgender actress L Morgan Lee, who plays Thought 1, says A Strange Loop is “unapologetically itself.” She’s particularly honored to speak the line “Tell your story…truthfully and without fear.” “That, to me, is a mantra that people should hold on to everywhere,” she says.

Jackson adds that he hopes Broadway audiences, like previous ones, appreciate the honesty of his work and react to it emotionally. “I hope that people continue to feel moved,” he says.

 

This story is part of The Advocate’s 2022 Entertainment Issue, which is out on newsstands April 2, 2022. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.

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