A strange loop is a cognitive science term, encapsulating “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 it exists.” It’s also a Liz Phair song, as the protagonist Usher in “A Strange Loop” informs us. The profound is often peppered in between the comedically mundane, in this self-referential, meta-musical that tastes more of real life than plenty of somber plays. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s “A Strange Loop” glimmers, provokes, and might even—as one young attendee offered in the post-show talkback—change what you think a musical can be.
Playwright Michael R. Jackson traces himself in Usher (Jaquel Spivey) who writes the play “A Strange Loop” while working as an usher for a “Lion King” on Broadway. Self-described as fat, black, and queer, Usher feels isolated by his identities and fantisizes about the freedoms and individuality allowed to white girls, whose folks ballads he adores. The NYC gay scene proves treacherous. “Snagging a man is like finding affordable housing in this town—there’s a long waitlist and the landlords discriminate,” Usher observes. Meanwhile, the cult of Tyler Perry and his mother’s long-held wish for him to write a gospel play haunt him, leaving him feeling an outsider to both black and queer cultures. Berating and doubting Usher at every step are his intrusive Thoughts, embodied by an ensemble of six black actors (L Morgan Lee, James Jackson Jr., John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrews Morrison, Jason Veasey, Antwayn Hopper) who ably cross race and gender lines to create every other character in the show.
‘A Strange Loop’ glimmers, provokes, and might even… change what you think a musical can be.
The pop-influenced score and the movement-filled direction from Stephen Brackett keeps the story bouncing along, but don’t let the upbeat tempo of the opening “Intermission Song” fool you into false serenity. “A Strange Loop” is sexually graphic, profanity filled, and heavy with the burdens Usher carries, meriting the content warnings Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company includes on their website. However, a winning and empathetic performance by Jaquel Spivey, making his professional theatrical debut as Usher, grounds the most uncomfortable and wrenching moments.
The music glows with witty rhymes like “Why don’t you just ravage me / with your white gay dan savagery” and “So I fall outside of the norm / cause I burn my bra to keep warm.” However, the book still has awkward and uneven moments. Particularly, some of Usher’s calls to his mother, with his family all given names from “The Lion King,” seemed disjointed from the flow of the broader story, filled with jarringly casual rumors of sexual violence. These caricatured moments stick out in an otherwise funny and insightful script.
Six boxed alcoves shrink the stage, framing each Thought and keeping Usher in the foreground of the minimal set of most of the show. However, as we move deeper into “A Strange Loop,” an impressive reveal showcases the talents of scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado as the staging unfurls. Creative lighting that is not distracting and designed by Jen Schrivier, outlines each Thought’s nook and frames the stage with a color-changing neon band. Costuming by Montana Levi Blanco again complements without overshadowing, with the Thoughts dressed in mauve streetwear, centering Usher’s bright red uniform.
“A Strange Loop” is a rare gift as an evocative, wholly original musical. Even though 2020 was a pandemic-truncated year for theatre, I’m not surprised this play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. With a fresh young actor at its helm, Woolly Mammoth’s production charms and provokes in equal measures, while bringing a undertold “Big, Black, and Queer” show to DC audiences. See it for yourself and ponder identity, change, and self within your own strange loop.
Runtime: 100 mins without intermission.
Advisory: Age 18+
“A Strange Loop” runs through January 9, 2022 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St NW, Washington, DC 20004. The theatre offers a variety of distanced, accessible, and talk back performances. Tickets are available on Woolly Mammoth’s website.