Musical Review

A Strange Loop Ushers in a New Wave of Black Gay Visibility On Stage

Five years after its triumphant 2019 Broadway run, A Strange Loop arrives loud and proud at the Ahmanson Theatre, aptly situated near the beginning of Pride month playing now through June 30th. Written and conceived by Michael R. Johnson, A Strange Loop is an outrageous and audacious thrill ride of black queer identity and empowerment. We are introduced to the main character Usher whose day job as a literal usher for the Broadway musical The Lion King stands in stark contrast to his own dreams of one day penning a very different kind of musical about himself and his experience as a queer, fat (his word, not mine) Black man. As the main character says in his opening number: “I’m a black gay man writing a musical about a black gay man who’s writing a musical about a black gay man surrounded by his extremely obnoxious thoughts.” Hence, the “strange loop” of it all, a term Jackson appropriated which was originally coined by cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter to describe the human capacity to perceive ourselves perceiving ourselves ad infinitum.

While open to interpretation, the “strange loop” seems to signify how our lives are rarely linear and more often feel like circuitous labyrinths with patterns that take time to resonate before we can fully make sense of, learn from and, if we’re lucky, eventually transcend. The aforementioned “obnoxious thoughts” are personified by a voluble cast of characters who give expression to the voices inside his head who represent those internalized messages from family and society which form the internal dialogue running through our heads at any given moment. It’s a clever conceit which serves as a vehicle to explore a range of issues including body image, Blackness, queerness and finding one’s purpose amidst the prevailing social and cultural expectations that surround us all.

Usher surrounded by the
From L to R: J. Cameron Barnett, Tarra Conner Jones, Jamari Johnson Williams, John-Andrew Morrison, Malachi McCaskill, Jordan Barbour, Avionce Hoyles in “A Strange Loop” at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre June 5 through June 30, 2024. Photo by Alessandra Mello.

Since its debut, A Strange Loop has garnered a slew of prestigious awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2020 and the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2022. Talk about manifesting your dreams. The show is bawdy and hilarious which provides a nice counterpoint to the main character’s rather low-key and chaste demeanor. If you’re the homophobic wife of a certain Supreme Court Justice, this is probably not the musical for you. But for those with an open mind who are inspired by envelope-pushing works of art, it’s a must-see. With an all-out Gospel-inspired number like “Precious Little Dream / AIDS is God’s Punishment,” the show does not shy away from controversy, but stares it in the face and locks horns with it.

At its core, A Strange Loop is a triumph of the human spirit which has nearly been snuffed out through all-too-pervasive cultural and societal norms. Two years after A Strange Loop was awarded the Pulitzer, Fat Ham, another play about a fat, Black queer character picked up the baton and followed suit winning the 2022 Pulitzer Prize, delving into many of the same themes while using Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a creative framework. Though the two works are very different stylistically, they traverse similar ground thematically on the Black gay experience which speaks to the universal truths therein.

Perhaps one of the more intriguing (and amusing) aspects of A Strange Loop is how Michael R. Jackson takes on one of the sacred cows within Black entertainment — Tyler Perry — and relentlessly mocks and skewers him, over and over again. It’s a bold move to take on such a powerful and prolific Black entrepreneur who has built an empire becoming a virtual industry unto himself with unheralded autonomy. A fair amount of ink has already been spilt around whether or not Mr. Perry has a thick enough skin to see the show himself. From all outward appearances, the answer appears to be no. Jackson offsets his scathing critique of Mr. Perry’s oeuvre with the way the other characters vociferously come to Perry’s defense.

One of the highlights of the show is the fantasy sequence where iconic luminaries from the Black pantheon of the past (including everyone from Harriet Tubman and James Baldwin to Zora Neale Hurston and Whitney Houston) come roaring back to life and stage an intervention of sorts to school Usher that he would be a fool to pass up an opportunity to work for the Tyler Perry. The number is one of many highpoints during this lean, one-act musical that clocks in at an hour and 40 minutes. The cast is exceptional, even though only one of them hails from the original Broadway cast. Besides Malachi McCaskill’s bravura performance as Usher, one of the standouts (for me anyway) is J. Cameron Barnett whose striking performance as Thought #2 is consistently hilarious. The way an audience receives this show will likely depend to a great extent on one’s own cultural baggage. It’s kind of like the theatrical equivalent of a Rorschach test. But the consensus from this opening night audience was unanimously ecstatic. While discussing the show in an interview with the BBC, the writer seems to underscore this point: “I always say, for some people, the show is a mirror, for other people, the show is a window.”

From L to R: Tarra Conner Jones, Jordan Barbour, John-Andrew Morrison, Malachi McCaskill, Avionce Hoyles, J. Cameron Barnett, and Jamari Johson Williams in
Malachi McCaskill headlines an exceptional cast from the Broadway sensation “A Strange Loop” at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre playing now through June 30th, 2024.

A Strange Loop: June 5–30 @ The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles CA 90012. Tickets

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