Theater review by Helen Shaw
By the end of the radiant, furious, exhausting metamusical A Strange Loop, the show has worn itself completely out. The performers totter as they take their bows; there’s no leftover curtain-call razzmatazz. Its blazing star, Larry Owens, is barely offstage the entire time—when he is, it’s for a quick change—and you can hear the weariness in his voice as he gives his last ounce of energy to his final song. Michael R. Jackson’s roller-coaster “Big Black and Queer-Ass American Broadway” creation asks impossible things of its writer (a shattering level of self-examination and rude candor), its lead actor (Owens flays himself alive) and, not least, from its audience. It doesn’t end, exactly, so much as it pushes to its outer limit of endurance. Even the music dwindles into a repeated phrase of four notes: Jackson, a lyrical and musical talent with deep wells of invention, has dropped the bucket down as many times as it will go.
Owens plays Usher, a gay black Disney usher writing a musical called A Strange Loop about a gay black Disney usher named Usher. The other characters onstage are his six Thoughts—à la Inside Out or Herman's Head—which manifest as everything from Self-Loathing (James Jackson Jr.) and Sexual Ambivalence (the crystal-voiced L Morgan Lee) to Corporate Niggatry (Jason Veasey), who tries to get Usher interested in something “unapologetically black,” like Wakanda. (Usher, wearing a #bellhooks T-shirt, demurs.) It’s never clear when we’re watching Usher’s version of A Strange Loop or Jackson’s, though both seem interested in how a personality is formed as it resists prevailing narratives. Usher refuses to write about slavery or police violence, he says, though his Thoughts tell him he could finally escape his NYU student loans if he did. And every few minutes his parents call, which knocks his Thoughts into a spiral every time. How can he write with a mother (powerfully played by John-Andrew Morrison) who insists both that she loves him and that hell is real for homosexuals? How can he not?
“A Strange Loop will have black shit! And white shit!,” the introductory song informs us. “With code-switching and butt-fucking! There will be butt-fucking!” Yet even with that gleeful warning, we are hardly prepared for the shocks to come. Jackson writes blisteringly and possibly autobiographically about a thousand awful things: men dismissing him online (“Fuck outta here, porch monkey!”), self-hatred (“My dick too small! Too fat and black to live at all!”), commercial black success (he is not nice about Beyoncé), and the deep and unwelcome ways that whiteness has entwined itself into his libido and his creativity. The first 20 minutes are an exhilarating cocktail of hilarious lyrical complexity and Owens’s Idina Menzel belt; even after the rage begins to mount, Jackson—abetted by a bravura ensemble and Stephen Brackett’s super direction—keeps extending what we can take with explosively funny asides. (This includes an entire Tyler Perry–manqué scene that Owens plays by himself.) But A Strange Loop, for all its mayhem, is basically a Passion play. We are summoned together to meditate on the suffering of one man. We observe his stations of the cross. Owens and Jackson take our hands and press them deep into the wound that the world has made: It stains us, but it stanches the blood.
Playwrights Horizons (Off Broadway). By Michael R. Jackson. Directed by Stephen Brackett. With Larry Owens. Running time: 1hr 45mins. No intermission.