The In-Person Broadway Review: Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop
Pushing forward through challenge. “If you’re not scared…then it’s probably not worth it.” This isn’t Broadway’s typical musical looking through the looking glass into some part of her soul thinking “white girls can do anything, can’t they?“ This is playwright Michael R. Jackson (the upcoming Amazon series “I’m a Virgo.“) finding his own on Broadway, whirling around intersectionality in the most detailed and delightfully dark loop, probably throwing not just a few patrons off their comfy little Broadway seats. If they just happen to wander in from Time Square thinking, “oh, this sounds like a fun little musical. Let’s check it out“.
But I’d be so thrilled if that is happening. A lot. Every day and every show, because it just needs to happen. Because this insanely brave and talented writer, credited, most brilliantly and deservedly with the book, music, lyrics, and the vocal arrangements, finds a space to call his own in his wildly successful attempt to unwrap himself fully inside and out of the Broadway norm. He’s out in force, in a big solid way, to pull apart the properties of our self-referential systems within the modern world in a theatrical manner that is pure unadulterated pleasure and pain in the sexual marketplace, unshackled from familial bondage and denial. A Strange Loop is a Russian doll dissection of sorts, peeling away and peering into the unique layers of our psyche in hopes of finding a sympathetic ear. It’s a self-referential concept that grew steadfast out of Jackson’s own from a Liz Phair musical narrative that, luckily for us, embedded the construct deep inside his head. On closer examination, it really is formulated out of a deeper framework from Douglas Hofstadter’s book, ‘I Am a Strange Loop‘, in which the author tries to expound and understand the central thematic message of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems that famously centered around self-reference and the examination of the stratums of the mind. Got it?
In the end, we are self-perceiving, self-inventing, locked-in mirages that are little miracles of self-reference.
— Douglas Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop p.363
Let’s walk on through this together and try to make some sense of it, thanks to some reading I did from the 2019 Playwrights Horizons handbook. Like Hofstadter, Jackson has taken this convoluted construct and mixed in a bit of W.E.B. DuBoi with a quote about ‘double consciousness‘. Du Bois describes “double consciousness” as “a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity“. With those sophisticated heady ideas floating around his wickedly smart noggin, Jackson found his footing and formulated his own exploration of his life, and those that surround him, including his family, his society, Tyler Perry, and his own gang of internalized thoughts, whether they be cruel or compassionate. It is a mind/body slam in the most humorous way and as directed with crafty ingenuity by Stephen Brackett (Broadway’s Be More Chill) and choreographed by the fantastic Raja Feather Kelly (Public’s Suffs), the thrills of that first number sent me into joyous giggles of delight and surprise. And it just kept getting deeper and smarter, wittier and wiser, with each effervescent and boundary-free song. The show is like no other, while constructing itself safely in a style that feels familiar yet not. It’s like taking a sweet-sharp onion and peeling away the layers until we get to another onion, deep inside, that needs its own peeling. It may bring tears to your eyes simply out of the pleasure or the pain of the connecting interactions before you, but the perfection of the unit is solid in the growing, and as flavorful as any fruit that awaits ingestion. So how do you like those apples, my enthusiastic Broadway audience? It seems you do, from the reaction they had the other night.
Newcomer Jaquel Spivey as the central figure, Usher, is a three-pronged stab into our funny bone, making us laugh, smile, and wince, especially when he coaxes us to feel the sting of all the different aspects of his loops and that name. His powerful voice is full of raw truth and the clarity of emotion, while never sounding typical or just plain lovely. It is his story that unfolds before our wide eyes, tinted with tones of Rent and Sondheim, that unwraps in the company of his wild and inappropriately appropriate six personified thoughts, each one a gold mine in their delightful descent down the rabbit hole of his mind. They are portrayed with finesse and fun by those wonderful creators from the original 2019 Playwrights Horizon production (in association with Page 73 Productions): Antwayn Hopper (Broadway’s Hair), James Jackson, Jr. (Joe’s Pub’s The Black-Ups), L. Morgan Lee (Concert: “Our Lady J: Gospel for the Godless”), John-Michael Lyles (ATC’s This Ain’t No Disco), John-Andrew Morrison (La Mama’s The Tooth of Crime), and Jason Veasey (Broadway/national tour’s The Lion King), with each giving us a tightly nuanced slice of their particular corner of the negative core belief structure, even when they might be playing up the formulation with a bit too strong of a snap. Playing an assortment of characters, the six conjure up from the dark recesses of his mind Usher’s fear, internalized homophobia, and utter self-hatred, coated and primed for maximum impact. Spinning forward with each perfectly articulated line, song, and passing comment, the stings are born out of the consequences of being faced with an imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy, that’s constantly policing self-expression and self-love, destroyed and assisted by “the white Gay-triarchy“, smashed down inside by a family that both loves their son, yet makes it clear he is doomed, destined to pay the consequences of living a life of a big black queer person, forever making his momma not proud. Let’s all sway and clap along to that particular gospel song, shall we? (I’ll tell you now, it’s not a comfortable thing to do.)
There are times we don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or clap along to the sounds of this collision of hurt and humor, as the players all bring forth an authentic slap to each well-crafted song. There is a strong earthbound bleeding heart to their slap, as the six neatly emerge from the singular boxes created with strong attention to compartmentalization of the mind by scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado (Broadway’s Trouble in Mind), with solid smart costuming by Montana Levi Blanco (LCT/Broadway’s Skin of Our Teeth), dynamic sharp lighting by Jen Schriever (Broadway’s Grand Horizons) and a somewhat difficult sound design by Drew Levy (Broadway’s Oklahoma!) that didn’t really help us follow along as well as we wanted to. The language and the dilemma of disparate experiences of the mind and heart fly out with delight, with phrases and dialogue that one wouldn’t expect inside any Broadway musical, yet shocked and thankful that they have found their place to be said, sung, and heard with such conviction. With strong music direction/supervision by Rona Siddiqui (PH’s Bella…), orchestrations by Charlie Rosen (Broadway’s Moulin Rouge!), and music coordination by Tomoko Akaboshi (Broadway’s SpongeBob…), Broadway’s A Strange Loop strikes the dissonance with delightful directive-ness granting such power to the ideals within that one of the thoughts that emerges, spoken with disdain by one of the “Guardians of Musical Theater” hits it perfectly on the preverbal head, uttering the unconventional rebuttal to Usher’s freedom, “You can’t say ‘N’. There are white people watching. There are black people watching.”
It’s clear that Jackson has done just that, found the exacting power in his unconventional yet proper musical. It’s a self-referential strange loop in and of itself, where the rebellious white rocker women; Liz Phair, Tori Amos, and Joni Mitchell, that live sneakily inside the soul of Usher, rise up and really let us have it. It expands the notion of black identity in all its complexity, dreaming of a space where a black queer man might not have to face the consequences of letting everyone know just what is going on inside his angry hurt heart. Yet, somehow he manages to find the power to stand up alongside his thoughts with a shared common language of truth. The piece is a very powerful construct that draws a line in the sand and asks us to join with him in the jump across. Trust me when I say, you’ll want most definitely to stand up and join in, grasping him and everyone involved by the hand in that giant leap of faith across the divide, cheering them on until the loop, A Strange Loop, begins again next showtime on Broadway.