This isn’t Alice any longer looking through the looking glass into some part of her soul and her design thinking “white girls can do anything, can’t they?“, but playwright Michael R. Jackson’s (White Girl in Danger) whirling around intersectionality in the most detailed and delightfully dark loop. This insanely brave and talented writer is credited, most brilliantly and deservedly with the book, music, lyrics, and the vocal arrangements, in his attempt to unwrap himself fully outside of the norm. To pull apart the properties of our self-referential systems within the modern world in a manner that is pure unadulterated pleasure and pain in the sexual market place, and unshackle himself 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 concept that grew out of Jackson’s own from a Liz Phair musical narrative that luckily for us, embedded the construct in his head. But on closer examination, it really formulated out of a deeper framework from Douglas Hofstadter’s book, I Am a Strange Loop, when the author tried 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.
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
Like Hofstadter, Jackson has taken this convoluted construct and mixed in a bit of W.E.B. DuBoi’s 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 sophistocated ideas floating around his head, Jackson formulated his own exploration of his life, and those that surround him, including his family, his society, Tyler Perry (of all people), and his own gang of internalized thoughts, whether they be cruel or compassionate. It was just days after I saw the powerful and uncomfortable Fairview, that left me stunned and excited by that dynamic engagement, when I got body slammed in a much more humorous way by Jackson’s fantastically crafted musical. As directed with crafty ingenuity by Stephen Brackett (Broadway’s Be More Chill) and choreographed by the fantastic Raja Feather Kelly (PH’s If Pretty Hurts…), 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 being safely familiar in construction and style. It’s like taking a sweet sharp onion and peeling away the layers. 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 of any fruit that awaits ingestion. So how do you like those apples, audience?
Larry Owens as the central figure, Usher, is a three pronged stab into our funny bone, making us laugh, smile, and wince, when feeling the sting of all the different aspects of his loops and that name. His powerhouse 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 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’s The Lion King), with each giving us a tightly nuanced slice of their particular corner of the negative core belief structure. Playing an assortment of characters, the six conjure up from the dark recesses of his mind Usher’s fear and 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 him momma not proud. Let’s all sway and clap along to that particular gospel song, shall we?
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, and an earthbound bleeding heart to their slap. The six neatly emerge from the singular boxes created with a strong attention to compartmentalization by scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado (PH’s I Was Most Alive…), with solid costuming by Montana Levi Blanco (Public’s Ain’t No Mo’), dynamic lighting by Jen Schriever (Broadway’s What the Constitution Means…) and stellar sound design by Alex Hawthorn (Keen’s Ordinary Days). The language and the dilemma of disparate experiences of the mind and heart fly out on the Popeye’d arms of delight, with phrases and dialogue that one wouldn’t expect inside any musical, yet shocked and thankful that they have found their place here to be said, sung, and heard. With strong orchestrations by Charlie Rosen (Broadway’s Moulin Rouge!), music direction by Rona Siddiqui (PH’s Bella…), and music coordination by Tomoko Akaboshi (Broadway’s SpongeBob…), A Strange Loop strikes the dissonance with delightful directive-ness with such power 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, but somehow manages to find the power to stand up alongside his thoughts with a shared common language of truth. Jackson, in an interview with Tim Sanford for PH, says it all, when he claims (regarding the “N” word) he “won’t be policed by them because to me, I feel like I will say it until there’s no need to say it. It’s a very powerful word and it’s a word that draws a line in the sand“. Trust me, you’ll want most definitely to stand up and cheer that number and that stance, just like I did when I experienced Jackson’s A Strange Loop at Playwrights Horizons.
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