A Strange Loop tells the story of Usher, an usher for the play Lion King, who works to complete his own autobiographical play, titled A Strange Loop. Played by the incredible Jaquel Spivey, Usher struggles to complete his play, a task that mirrors his inability to resolve central conflicts pertaining to his sexuality and family life. Guided, taunted, and criticized by a Greek chorus-like ensemble of six Thoughts, Usher leads the audience on a fraught, fourth-wall-breaking journey to finish his play, an act he hopes will put to rest his disruptive and unyielding thoughts.
The narrative device used by Michael R. Jackson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, to frame Usher’s journey seemed at first, to me, full of opportunity. Usher writes the play, in which he is both the author and the protagonist, in real time. We, the audience, are subject to his decisions and are, in a way, captive to his creative process, unable to leave until he resolves the central conflicts. And there are numerous conflicts to resolve: should he take a job writing scripts for Tyler Perry, and thus spin up straight-washed caricatures of “real life”? Can he convince his parents to accept his homosexuality? Can he heed his doctor’s orders and have more sex, or else miss out on what, for all gays, should be an over-sexed youth? Can he just finish the play so the audience can leave?
The play, however, appeared meandering, the set lifeless, and the script beholden to a series of stereotypes, pertaining to both Black culture and gay identity. But could this have been the point? As Usher and his Thoughts frequently remind the audience, Usher is normal. Usher is bored by his job, he has a stilted relationship with his parents, he struggles romantically, and appears paralyzed creatively. This isn’t a story about a remarkable individual, about beating the odds, about achieving the impossible. This is a glimpse into an average individual living a quotidian life. Usher does not speak for all Black men or all gay men, he speaks for himself and his story is largely unremarkable and plainly familiar.
Is it fair, then, for me to critique A Strange Loop for relying too heavily on a series of stereotypes? One after another, these gay vignettes—finding particularly vicious rejection on various gay sex apps, uneasy conversations about sex with your doctor, lusting over the hyper-masculine man—felt a bit tried. But that may be author Michael R. Jackson’s intent—to tell a gay story so common that it feels almost cliched. Jackson seems to relish the inherent discomfort of stereotyping, and constantly pushes the audience to question whether Usher’s Black & gay experiences are symbolic stand-ins for these communities at-large.
This is not to say that there weren’t any storylines that went beyond experiences that I, a single viewer, have lived. Usher’s tense interactions with his parents were heartbreaking insights into gay men who come from religious backgrounds. In these scenes, Usher’s mother and father could only see his sexuality as it related to their standing within their religious community. Usher’s gayness was an unavoidable embarrassment, a brash affront; a selfish, roundabout path toward god/heterosexuality. But even this plot line collapsed in on itself, with Usher’s chorus stopping, mid-line, to comment on the scene’s insistence on stereotype. And while I may have unresolved reservations about a musical that reads as a series of cultural tropes, A Strange Loop is worth seeing for its cast alone, a truly incredible ensemble of talent.