After a steamy August day spent walking 12 miles around Manhattan, we stepped into the lovely air conditioned Lyceum Theater, and climbed the many, many steps to the balcony. Many steps. So so many.
Maggie and her fellow Musical Theater Writing classmates were there as a group. Shannon and I were in the city, so we decided to grab some last minute tickets to the show, A Strange Loop, by Michael R Jackson.
I went in to the experience knowing nearly nothing about the show. I knew it had won a couple of awards. I knew it was written by a black man. But that was all I knew.
The lights went dim, the stage lit up, and the understudy (Kyle Ramar Freeman, who was absolutely PHENOMENAL) stood, center stage. He briefly explained what we were about to witness, using some very colorful colloquialisms. He boldly spoke words which, I am certain, have never before been uttered on a broadway stage.
I already knew we were in for a wild ride.
As the first musical number began, the main character, Usher, was standing on stage, surrounded by the human personifications of his inner thoughts, listed in the program as Thought 1, 2, 3, 4… ‘Intermission Song’, spells out what the writer hopes to achieve:
‘He wants to show what it’s like to live up here,
And travel the world in a fat, black, queer body’
He is a young (25 soon to be 26) writer. In the setting, listed as ‘Here and Now’, he is writing a show about himself writing a show, about himself writing a show, about himself… It is an endless self-obsessed writer’s loop.
It’s all very meta. So so meta. And it has been done before. But the thing that makes this loop a strange one is that the writer/star of this Broadway show is young, fat, black, and gay. He is not at all the type of leading man we are accustomed to seeing on Broadway. He breaks all of the ‘rules’.
Norms and traditions that a show like Hamilton gently shifted, through musical/lyrical style and the casting of people of color, are smashed here with a roar.
Jackson/Usher is writing this new kind of musical for a new kind of Broadway. The intention is clear. As the song says, they are looking forward to a ‘Big, black and queer-ass American Broadway’.
This musical is big. And it is all black. And totally queer. The singing, the acting, the music, the lyrics, the staging, are all amazing. And the story… I won’t spoil any of it. I will say that it was a very emotional experience.
There were some poignant moments. I was choked up a few times, and two of the songs brought me to actual tears. I laughed out loud so many times. Full belly laughs. And a few of those times my raucous laughter was followed by my questioning whether or not I was actually entitled to that laughter. But as the lyric says ‘White girls can do anything. Can’t they?’
I was uncomfortable a bunch. For Usher and for myself. I cringed once or twice. There were moments of audible gasping from the entire audience, as we were all confronted with the reality of current life, Here and Now, in certain skins.
The catchiest lines of the entire show, in my opinion, are in a song that repeats a word I cannot say. It uses the word over and over, and the phrase shows up again in a reprise. I’m certain that he did that on purpose. To make it stick. Well aware of the socioeconomic/racial makeup of a typical broadway audience. And to make us think about why we shouldn’t sing it.
It has been my earworm for two days now because the phrasing is catchy as hell. And that makes me even more uncomfortable. Like true art often can.
And this play is true art. I could see and feel that some of the people in the audience were pretty uncomfortable. This musical is definitely not for everyone.
I’ve read some reviews. To the more traditional-minded folks it might seem like he’s trying to cram all of the ‘alternative’ representation he can into one play. Gay. Black. Fat. Creative. Young. Self-loathing. Sensitive. Snowflake. It’s a lot. He is a lot. But he is so real.
His lyrics are clever and campy and cutting, and every line seems absolutely purposeful. Parts of the play can be offensive, but only to the people he actually intends to offend.
This play might be for you if you are interested in a hilarious, heartwarming, sad, shocking, infuriating, educational experience on what humanness can be like in a creative mind. Or a musical mind. Or if you want to know what navigating the world might be like in fat body. Or a black body. Or a queer body. Or what might go on in in the mind of someone with a very healthy dose of self loathing. Or in the heart of a non-conforming person from a deeply religious family. Or in the life experience of a person existing at the intersection of all of those things.
Go see it if you want to share the experience of a person who grew up processing, and is Here and Now, right in front of us, coming to terms with, every anti-black, anti-fat, anti-queer, anti-creative, personal, familial and societal restriction and constriction that was put upon them. A young adult person coming to terms with their own internalized anti-everything-that-they–are.
If you want to spend 100 minutes of your life watching some amazingly talented and beautiful souls singing and moving on stage, and come away feeling thoughtfully introspective, with a greater sense of empathy for other folks’ experiences of the human condition, then this is definitely a show for you.
This is a different kind of Broadway. It is big, fat, black, queer and American. But mostly, it is fully human. And really frickin’ good.