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Theatre in Review: A Strange Loop (Playwrights Horizons/Page 73 Productions)

Jason Veasey, Larry Owens. Photo: Joan Marcus

A Strange Loop takes a highly unpromising premise and spins it into something startlingly, brutally honest. Michael R. Jackson, a young, overweight, gay, black writer of musicals, has come up with a show about a struggling, young, overweight, gay, black writer of musicals. The characters consist of the protagonist, Usher, and six other performers who play - yes -- his thoughts. These individuals include Your Daily Self-Loathing and the Supervisor of Your Sexual Ambivalence; combine these with Usher's central dilemma as a blocked writer, and an entire raft of alarm bells should be ringing. Jackson candidly admits to all this, having one of his thoughts sing in the opening number, "Watch them write you off as lazy/Not to mention navel-gazy."

Even given the fact that the action unfolds entirely in Usher's head, the first part of A Strange Loop is written with an undeniable comic verve reminiscent of the early William Finn. The show has plenty of fun with the details of Usher's so-called life, including his dispiriting job as -- you guessed it -- an usher at The Lion King; a variety of encounters with literary managers who pick his work apart ("Why not make it be about slavery or police violence so the allies in your audience have something intersectional to hold on to?"), and his fraught relationship with his parents back home in Detroit. The latter are, alternately, churchy (Mom) and boozily withholding (Dad), and they preside over a family with enough dysfunctions for a Bravo reality series. They are entirely unhappy about their son's sexual orientation, and not much more cheerful about his choice of career. His mother urges him to redeem himself by (a) marrying and (b) writing a Tyler Perry-style gospel play. (As she coolly notes, "We wanna know/If you been chasing ya dream/'Cause after what me and yo dad went through/To send yo black bootie to NYU/it appears to be jes' running around/And without any direction.")

For all the amusement Jackson mines out of being young, broke, creatively blocked, and chronically single, one can't help wondering if he isn't leading the audience down a blind alley; [title of show] notwithstanding, there is something less-than-engaging about watching a playwright struggling to finish his script, especially when it is clearly the show one is currently watching. The breakthrough comes when the focus turns to dating: An encounter on the subway with a sweet, cute white guy ends with a gut punch of a twist; it is followed by Usher's chilly, borderline-abusive hookup with a white, middle-aged married man whose sexual fantasies edge into pedophile territory. A Strange Loop, a show that never, ever minces words, makes thoroughly clear that Usher, with this race, weight, and effeminate manner, has three strikes against him in the meet market.

And, in an unexpected development, Usher is indeed hired to write that gospel play that his mother has so long desired. (The real Tyler Perry, we are told, is so busy turning out feature films and television shows that he has turned to ghostwriters to supplement his output.) This leads to a savagely funny spoof of Perry-esque clich├ęs, including the straight-talking mama, the loose-lipped jezebel, and the prim heroine who pays her weekly church tithe and wonders when God will send her Mr. Right. When Usher rebels against turning out more such tripe, he realizes that he must confront his family heritage: This leads to a bizarrely arresting sequence in which, transformed into a megachurch pastor, he presides over the funeral of a friend and AIDS victim: "Darnell, who found out he was sick ten years ago and decided to let Gawd's punishment ravish his body rather than get himself HIV medication because even that little faggot knew that the wages of sin was death."

In this astonishing (there is no other word) sequence, Usher's mother looks on in horror as he, backed by the choir, delivers a hate-drenched screed that is the last word in self-satisfied, utterly pharasaical Christianity. (To give you an example of its scathing quality, the constantly repeated refrain asserting that "AIDS is God's punishment" is the least of it.) It is also an act of psychological surgery, allowing Usher to cauterize the wounds of self-hatred that have left lifelong scars. I cannot think of any other play that has so uncompromisingly confronted the institutional homophobia found in many black churches; this alone makes A Strange Loop one for the books.

Even more remarkable is the fact that Jackson's bluntly confrontational style is unaccompanied by self-pity. The show's exploration of the ugliest of truths is accompanied by a magpie sense of humor, exemplified by the appearance of a chorus of ancestors -- including Harriet Tubman, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and Solomon Northup, of Twelve Years a Slave, the latter dressed in chains but toting an Oscar -- who denounce Usher as a "race traitor." What could easily have become a mawkish exercise, a burst of too much information, maintains a remarkable detachment, thanks to its clear-eyed, often pitiless hilarity. A Strange Loop is a cry from the heart, but not so raw that one wants to turn away.

This is due no doubt in part to Stephen Brackett's crisp, fast-moving direction -- aided by Raja Feather Kelly's ebullient, often satiric choreography -- which confidently takes the action from its sketch-comedy opening to a jaw-dropping climax. He is aided by Arnulfo Maldonado's scenic design, which includes an unsettlingly stylized two-level set, depicting both Usher's family home and a garish church interior. Jen Schriever's lighting takes in everything from chiaroscuro looks to rainbow-colored washes. Montana Levi Blanco's costumes, Cookie Jordan's hair and wig designs, and Alex Hawthorn's sound design all make solid contributions.

In addition to providing Jackson with his first major platform, A Strange Loop also marks the de facto debut of Larry Owens as Usher. A big-voiced comic actor who can earn a big laugh with a single priceless glare, he doesn't shy away from the character's darker, more self-loathing aspects; that he effortlessly holds the stage for the entire one-hundred-minute running time is a sign of his incipient star quality. The rest of the cast -- including Jason Veasey as that subway lothario; John-Andrew Morrison as Usher's weepy, ulterior mother; and L Morgan Lee as a musical-theatre fan who dispsenses some crucial advice -- jump from role to role with the nimbleness of acrobats.

The title of A Strange Loop alludes to the theory of the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter that the self is "merely a collection of meaningless symbols mirroring back on their own essences in repetition until death," (I quote from Jackson's program note.) Of course, as Usher points out, the fact that one can formulate in this manner is, in a way, its own refutation. Whatever his past struggles with identity, this scalding and thoroughly original musical proves that Michael R. Jackson -- yes, he is aware of the pitfalls of that name -- is an exciting young artist with an identity all his own. --David Barbour

(21 June 2019)

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