Performance

Round and Round

Michael R. Jackson, A Strange Loop. Playwrights Horizons, New York, 2019. From left to right: James Jackson, Jr., John-Michael Lyles, Jason Veasey, Larry Owens, Antwayn Hopper, John-Andrew Morrison, L Morgan Lee.

HOW AM I THIS I? So asks composer and playwright Michael R. Jackson’s brazen and brilliant game changer A Strange Loop, a “Big Black and Queer-Ass American Broadway Show” that’s as thrilling and excruciating as having an existential crisis in a hall of mirrors. At its center is Usher (the sublime Larry Owens), who works as an usher in a Broadway theater while struggling to write a self-referential musical called A Strange Loop, about a man named Usher who works as an usher in a Broadway theater while struggling to write a self-referential musical called A Strange Loop. The title, he explains in blushing upspeak to a sexy stranger on the subway, comes from Douglas Hofstadter’s theory

about how your sense of self is just a set of meaningless symbols in your brain pushing up or down through one level of abstraction to another but always winding up right back where they started? It’s the idea that your ability to conceive of yourself as an “I” is kind of an illusion? But the fact that you can recognize the illusion kind of proves that it exists kind of? I don’t totally get it. But it’s also the name of this Liz Phair song I really love.

It isn’t helping his creative process that he’s antagonized, interrupted, and otherwise beleaguered by his riotous Thoughts (each embodied to perfection by Antwayn Hopper, James Jackson Jr., L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, and Jason Veasey), a cruel chorus that includes Self Loathing (“I thought I’d drop in to remind you of just how truly worthless you are”), Financial Faggotry (“Do you have a second to chat about this situation with Shittybank Student Loans?”), and a Supervisor of his sexual ambivalence (“you can rest assured that I have sealed the gates of your body and mind so that nothing can get inside your shitty butthole…”), not to mention his parents, his agent, his lover, and others who weave their way into his story—and into the story of his story.

Michael R. Jackson, A Strange Loop. Playwrights Horizons, New York, 2019. From left to right: John-Andrew Morrison, L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, Jason Veasey, Larry Owens (plaid shirt), Antwayn Hopper, James Jackson, Jr.

Amid the clamor, Usher remains clearheaded about one thing: He wants his musical to be about “real life,” which—for a “young overweight-to-obese homosexual and/or gay and/or queer, cisgender male” who thinks of Beyoncé as a terrorist and wears a T-shirt that reads

Imperialist

White Supremacist

Capitalist

Patriarchy

#bellhooks

and secretly wrestles with his “inner white girl”—is a complex, multivalent thing. (One of the show’s many glorious numbers is “Second Wave,” Usher’s self-portrait-in-song, its bounding refrain bemoaning—perhaps even bragging a little—how “the second wave feminist in me is at war with the dick-sucking black gay man.”) But according to his mother and father, and the Ancestors, and the gig economy, the master of portraying real life is Tyler Perry, whose cartoonish plays, proclaims Usher, “are worse for black people than dia-fuckin-betes.” But Perry needs a ghostwriter, and Usher needs a job, so he goes to work on what will be the mogul’s new gospel musical, “Show Me How to Pray.” For the money. And his parents. And the Ancestors. (One of Jackson’s many subterranean cultural jabs: how popularity, and money, are mistaken as signs of realness.)                                        

What follows is a frenetic tangling and untangling of narratives (the ones he’s penning, and the ones he’s living) which escalates into Usher performing the Perry musical he’s writing inside the musical we’re watching. Playing a fire-and-brimstone preacher, he leads his Thoughts in a hate-fueled pew-burner—“AIDS is God’s punishment” they boom—their voices and the melody so achingly beautiful that here Jackson lets loose the terrible paradox of the otherworldly magnificence of an idea called God: That it betrays humanity because it has been betrayed by humanity, and that God can be no greater than our own limitations. Usher himself is not beyond reproach. After all, he named the characters based on his family—Sarabi, the squawking matriarch; Mufasa, the 40-ounce swilling father; Scar, the no-good brother who lives at home; and Rafficki, mother to Scar’s daughter, Nala—after characters from The Lion King.

Michael R. Jackson, A Strange Loop. Playwrights Horizons, New York, 2019. From left to right: L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Larry Owens, Antwayn Hopper (behind him), Jason Veasey, James Jackson, Jr.

“Why do you hate us?” his “real” mother cries, in a moment when A Strange Loop reveals yet another of its layers. “Why would you write about us like this?” “Because I love you,” he tells her, but Jackson has made it clear by now that love is also a strange loop, inflected, infected, by forces outside ourselves. From his parents, Usher feels the pain of being loved but not seen for who he is. From the “white gaytriarchy,” he experiences how hollowing it is to be either rejected or desired, because of how he’s seen: “too black, too fat, too feminine,” allege the hookup apps on his phone. But as he reminds himself while plotting the arc of his play: “If Usher’s sense of self is just a bunch of meaningless symbols moving from one level of abstraction to another but ending up back where they started, then his perceptions of Mom and Dad and everything else are realities that will never change until he changes.”               

Jackson writes with Wildean dimension and wit, his barbed mirrors angled at the characters as well as the audience. If a strange loop is part of what constructs an “I,” then every one of us, whether onstage or off, is built of an equally fallible and fucked-with system of symbols and abstractions—and our perceptions of reality won’t change until we change. (Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play and Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview are two recent plays that pose similar questions about reality and race and the role of roleplaying, each revealing some of the poisonous fictions anointed as facts by dominant culture). Showgoers heretofore hooting and howling at the scenes of Usher’s parents eating Popeye’s chicken and complaining about “babymamadrama” and berating him for being “into the homosexsh’alities” shouldn’t be surprised if they find themselves having a come-to-Jesus moment about why—and at what or whom exactly—they’ve been laughing. (There will be as many conclusions drawn here as there are selves in the theater). And although he does not give Usher a flatly happy ending, as is genre tradition, Jackson does give him the last word, which he sings as his Thoughts harmonize and dance with him, having all played their parts in this very real masterpiece.

A Strange Loop runs through July 28 at Playwright’s Horizons in New York City.

ALL IMAGES