A Strange Loop
A Year of Essays: December 30, 2021
Over two years ago, I attended the Dramatists Guild Institute’s Musical Theatre Intensive. One master class was taught by Rona Siddiqui who took us through some recent musicals. She was (and still is) the musical director for Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop. We studied one particular number, “Exile in Gayville.” The lyrics were, well, raunchy; the music was catchy. [NOTE: I’m far from a prude; I had just never heard Grindr chat in a show song.] I downloaded the cast recording. It blew me away. A fresh take on identity politics in the form of a fat, black, gay man writing a musical about a fat, black gay man writing a musical about a fat, black gay man. Ergo, a strange loop.
Jackson’s musical premiered at Playwrights Horizons in May 2019 and won numerous off-Broadway awards as well as the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. A scheduled run at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., in September 2020 was postponed because of the pandemic. It opened earlier this month, and I saw it last night.
What a show! Jackson describes A Strange Loop as a “big, Black and queer-ass American Broadway show.” Its Pulitzer Prize citation noted it was “a meditation on universal human fears and insecurities.” Jackson covers racially fetishized sex, child abuse, and racial stereotypes, juxtaposing Usher’s (the protagonist) personal thoughts with his family upbringing, sexual life, and creative ambitions. The show is 100 minutes of unbridled and unapologetic pain and joy and hope that gives us a look at how culture (black, white, American), family, religion, situations, and our own shortcomings all converge to make us who we are.
This isn’t our grandparents’ musical. Frankly, my grandfather would have had a stroke from being so agitated about race, and my grandmother would have prayed, after having fainted, for the souls of everyone involved in and watching the show. So I’m glad their generational attitudes (and those of our parents) have progressed to this important point in time, when we start to recognize Black and queer experiences as human experiences.
Boys who show even the slightest bit of effeminacy face ridicule from their peers and often from their families. I’m sure the experience is little different between a black boy and a white boy, yet there’s a whole lot of “otherness” going on with a black boy. Usher has a resounding speech which he delivers to the Thought playing his father: “[W]hen the anti-Black world we live in gets so strung out on this color-blind ‘love is love’ bullshit, forgetting that ‘love is love’ will never be true until Black love matters and Black lust matters and Black queers can finally stop using white men to flatter or elevate their fucking class status and start buying into how sexy and liberating it could be to just be with each other.”
A Strange Loop is one of several Black plays I’ve seen this year. I look forward to seeing many more. They change me. They change us.