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A Strange Loop

. . . I want to break the cycle / That's so ingrained in me / But change comes way too slow . . . .
— Usher (who also happens to be an usher at The Lion King), singing about the strange emotional loop of his life in Michael R. Jackson's A Strange Loop
strange loop
Antwayn Hopper and Larry Owens (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Michael R. Jackson's semi-autobiographical A Strange Loop transforms oversharing into high art. Filled with surprises, this music-theater piece is as bold and risqué as Slave Play and Daddy, the unflinching dramas by Jeremy O. Harris that recently roiled the waters Off-Broadway; but A Strange Loop, while provocative, is also endearing.

Jackson, author of the show's book, music, and lyrics, is a Detroit native who came east to study at New York University and stayed to make his way in professional theater. Jackson's recent honors include a Dramatist Guild Fellowship, the ASCAP Foundation Harold Adamson Award, Lincoln Center's Emerging Artist Award, and a Jonathan Larson Grant. A Strange Loop, currently on view (and extended to July 24th) in a joint staging by Playwrights Horizons and Page 73 Productions, justifies all those citations.

The musical takes place in the consciousness of Usher, a fledgling playwright and composer struggling with identity issues. To pay the rent, Usher is — of course, what else? — an usher at The Lion King. What matters to him is the autobiographical music-theater piece he's writing, which is called — again, what else? — A Strange Loop.

Jackson, whose writing often suggests he's drunk on words (and delightfully so), characterizes Usher in this cascade of phrases: "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 . . . obsessing over the latest draft of his self-referential musical A Strange Loop!"

The title of the play — and of the play within the play — comes from a song by Liz Phair (one of Jackson's musical heroes) and the writings of cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter. Professor Hofstadter is best known as author of Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (1979), a mammoth, Pulitzer Prize winning reflection on mentation and creativity.

The "strange loop" is Hofstadter's metaphor or model for the operation of human consciousness. In his 2007 book I Am a Strange Loop, Hofstadter describes consciousness — his preferred term is "the I" — as "self-perceiving, self-inventing," and "locked-in mirages that are little miracles of self-reference." Identity, he suggests, is "a hallucination hallucinated by a hallucination."

Writing arresting drama about a blocked writer is no easy task: Jackson has found a way. It's hard to gauge the extent to which he has grappled with the anti-Cartesian theories of Hofstadter's work; but the scientist's imagery of consciousness as a loop is an effective ordering principal for this sui generis musical play.

Jackson surrounds his protagonist (played and sung with distinction by Larry Owens) with six actor-singers who embody Usher's uneasy "thoughts" (or, rather, Thoughts). Those six are Antwayn Hopper, James Jackson, Jr., L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, and, Jason Veasey. This superb company of musical theater performers, all adept at dance and physical comedy, have been meticulously directed by the versatile Stephen Brackett (currently represented on Broadway by Be More Chill).

The Thoughts cycle on and off stage constantly, tormenting Usher with an array of fears and anxieties, set to an effervescent musical score. Sometimes the actors playing the Thoughts take the form of Usher's parents, siblings, or agent; at other points they're objects of his thwarted desire; and, in one of the show's most delicious scenes, they're historical and cultural icons integral to Usher's artistic life — abolitionist Harriet Tubman, historian/journalist Carter G. Woodson, novelists James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston, the motion picture (no kidding) Twelve Years a Slave (who wields an Oscar statuette and chains), and vocalist Whitney Houston (who rises from the stage floor in a coffin lined with bright red satin).

Usher's cognitive loop is a parade of horrors. His sense of self-worth is undercut by his father's contempt for homosexuals. His pursuit of artistic goals is hampered by his mother's conviction that he should use his expensive NYU education to write "gospel plays" in Tyler Perry mode, instead of expending effort on an avant-garde musical. Though he longs for love, Usher settles for anonymous hook-ups, initiated online and humiliating to recollect. The relentless activity of the Thoughts, superbly choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly, makes the hapless protagonist spin and tumble like the contents of an overactive washing machine.

Usher's loop will be recognizable to anyone who has wrestled with anxiety in the wee hours of the night. His psychic pain, though frequently comedic, is always believable.

Jackson is breaking new ground on all levels: in characterization of the central figure and his anthropomorphized Thoughts; in the structure of the libretto; and in his musical choices. Here, as in much (if not most) contemporary American musical theater, the influence of Sondheim is palpable; but A Strange Loop is informed by that master's work rather than being derivative. To be fair, Jackson's musical is informed by a multiplicity of influences, including classic rock, golden-age Broadway, soul, gospel, and what the composer would call "white girl" ballads (he credits, especially, Phair, Tori Amos, and Joni Mitchell). These influences and others combine in a score that's fresh, unpredictable, and inextricably blended with the book and lyrics.

Arnulfo Maldonado's handsome scenic design is as fast moving as Jackson's score. For much of the play, the set is principally utilitarian. When Usher's fantasies blunder into Tyler Perry "urban theater" territory, Maldonado's imagination takes off. At this point, he introduces visual humor and vivid colors (admirably complemented by the work of costume designer Montana Levi Blanco and lighting designer Jen Schriever) that are distinct from what has come before and that spectators are likely to be laughing about long after they've left the theater.

Contrary to the implication of its title, A Strange Loop is never repetitious. It may not be ideal for the tired business traveler. Its ribald aspects won't appeal to everyone and may offend some. But the saga of Usher is an intriguing odyssey with plenty of momentum, fresh melodies, and artful lyrics that explore essential elements of the human condition — angst, despair, ambition, desire, and hope. As for Usher, the standoffish, self-absorbed social outlier: he's likely to endear himself to a far wider audience than a bald description of his story suggests.

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A Strange Loop by Michael R. Jackson
Directed by Stephen Brackett
Cast: Antwayn Hopper (Thought 6), James Jackson, Jr. (Thought 2), L Morgan Lee (Thought 3), John-Michael Lyles (Thought 3), John-Andrew Morrison (Thought 4), Larry Owens (Usher), Jason Veasey (Thought 5)
Scenic Design: Arnulfo Maldonado
Costume Design: Montana Levi Blanco
Lighting Design: Jen Schriever
Sound Design: Alex Hawthorn
Production Stage Manager: Erin Gioia Albrecht
Running Time: One hour 40 minutes, without intermission
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street (between 9th and 10th Avenues)
From 5/24/19; opened 6/17/19; extended to 7/24/19
Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:00 pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 2:30 and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:30 and 7:30 pm
Reviewed by Charles Wright at the evening performance on 6/23/19.

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