A Strange Loop

From The Lego Movie to Love Island, entertainment isn't entertainment unless it's ‘meta’.

Possibly the world's first metafictional, meta-musical.

If you’re not clear what it means to be meta – ie, you’re not a Millennial – look no further than A Strange Loop, playing at the Barbican for a strictly limited season until September 9th.

It’s a musical about a self-doubting, plus-sized, Black, queer writer trying to write a musical about a Black, self-doubting, queer, plus-sized writer trying to write a musical. The book is written by Michael R. Jackson: a Black, plus-sized, queer writer, who was once trying to write this musical about…

I mixed up the adjectives for fun.

Oh, and the writer’s name is Usher. He’s an usher.

Self-aware and self-referential, A Strange Loop is possibly the world’s first self-defined, metafictional, meta-musical.

Radical and vulgar

This multi meta overload is likely to be divisive. A Strange Loop arrives at the Barbican from its recent Broadway run. A run that garnered the show a Best New Musical Tony and a Pulitzer for Best Drama. But a run that lasted only nine months.

The New York Times noted its “brilliance”, calling the musical “radical”. Reddit threads decry it as “vulgar”, “self-indulgent” and (derogatorily) “woke”.

A Strange Loop has no real narrative. Usher has no character arc. He goes on no journey. By the end of the show, nothing has been learnt and his life has not been changed.

It’s to be expected. The title refers to the cognitive science theory; there is no such thing as ‘I’, we only develop a sense of self from self-reference. This is the theory behind the chicken or egg first question. We can’t know who we are without first knowing who we are.

So, for 100 interval-free minutes, we follow Usher as he battles with his thoughts. We see him try to understand how his own life experiences have created his personality. To use this knowledge to write a musical that reflects who he truly is.

Which of course he can’t. Because therein lies the paradox of the strange loop. And that’s what makes this show such a delight.

Evil and hypnotising

Our interest in this unusually unstructured story relies on the likeability of the lead character. Never off stage, Kyle Ramar Freeman – who performed the role as understudy on Broadway – gives it, and us, his heart and soul throughout.

Sharing the stage with him on a set predominately bare, save for six empty doorframes, are his ‘Thoughts’.

Five men and one woman in pink dungarees, lycra, and crop tops, they pose, genuflect and circle around him. With self-assured queerness, they mock his insecurities. Their confidence reflects his own inability to fit in.

At times the Thoughts represent people – his agent, sexual partners, parents – but ultimately, they are elements of his self-doubt.

The performers – Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea, Danny Bailey, Eddie Elliott, Sharlene Hector, Tendai Humphrey Sitima, and Yeukayi Ushe – are without exception, flawless. Evil, hateful, bitchy, cutting, and hypnotisingly watchable.

The ugly truth

A Strange Loop breaks the well-worn tropes that we’re used to seeing in stories about lonely gay boys. From 1988’s Torch Song Trilogy to last year’s It’s a Sin, we have cried with numerous gays as they struggled to overcome life’s obstacles. And we have cheered with them as they finally found the support and love they deserve from a community that becomes their adoptive “gay family”.

Such narratives tell us that everybody has a place in the world. And once you find this place, you will finally fit in and feel loved for who you are.

A Strange Loop rips off this attractive wrapping paper and shows the ugly truth within. It says that not being one thing doesn’t automatically make you another. That not being accepted isn’t enough of a bond to guarantee acceptance.

Each supposed community into which we subconsciously place Usher -behaves as another majority, rejecting otherness within its own otherness. He is too Black for the Blacks. Too repressed for the queers. Too camp for the straight-acting. Too small-dicked for the sexual. Too musical-oriented for the theatrical.

It’s probably not what we want to hear. But it’s probably what we already know.

The “love but”

At the top of the list for acceptance of otherness is religion. Jackson pulls no punches in showing the blind hypocrisy of those who worship an all-loving God, but easily exclude homosexual from the definition of ‘all’. A God who gives all, including AIDS as His punishment (to use the name of one of the songs, a rousing gospel number to which our clapping is encouraged.)

Usher’s religious mother and father are the other characters we see the most. Sang by the Thoughts – either as single characters or as a voice shared between all six – they leave answerphone messages conveying the “love but” favoured by the religious.

Birthday messages from his mother remind him of the painful labour endured as her “proof of love”. Late night drunken voicemails from his father, wanting to know whether his son’s attraction to men means he is also attracted to him.

These are the definitions of love that have shaped his understanding of love as a grown man.

An unexpected barrier

There are barriers to overcome when seeing A Strange Loop.

The language: C, F and N words are bountiful.

The sex: the song Inwood Daddy accompanies a sub-dom, ‘race play’, one-night stand.

The code: during another number, Exile in Gayville, Usher receives multiple curt rejections on gay apps, using the wording well-known to the gays, but possibly foreign to others.

There are warnings about these things. If you are of a disposition sensitive enough to make it impossible to see through them, then don’t go. If you do, shut up about it afterwards.

But perhaps the barrier which impacts most is one that is unexpected. The show is truly American with a big fat U and S running through its core. With no edits for a London audience, key points of cultural reference fly by. Tyler Perry plays a large part, but who he? Or Scott Rudin? And what are chicken popeyes?

Even Lin Manuel-Miranda made some tweaks for the West End production of Hamilton. Sometimes it’s the simplest things that cause the most problems.

A unique show

With so many layers to Usher, it’s easier for most of us to feel sympathy rather than empathy. A challenge of this show in finding a wider audience is that the specificity impacts relatability.

Some say it’s about time theatre gave a voice to… And sure, that’s great if you are also a… But I think that is wholly missing the point.

The important thing here isn’t the specifics of Usher’s strange loop. It’s that we all have our own. We all have things that make us and break us. Things we want to change but never do. Cycles we reject yet repeat. Experiences that drive us to look elsewhere for acceptance but that we hold on to, impeding our ability to find that acceptance.

A Strange Loop is a unique show about a unique person with unique experiences. But it should be seen by everyone, regardless of recognition. It reminds us that what we share is our difference.

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Reviews by Simon Ximenez

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Since you’re here…

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The Blurb

A Strange Loop, the ground-breaking and critically acclaimed winner of every ‘Best Musical’ award on Broadway and the Pulitzer Prize, bursts onto the stage of the Barbican this June for a one time only, limited season.

Grab your chance to see Michael R. Jackson’s blisteringly funny, ‘audacious and uproarious’ (The Guardian) heart-felt masterwork, which exposes a young black artist grappling with desires, identity, and instincts he both loves and loathes. Hell-bent on breaking free of his own self-perception, Usher wrestles with the thoughts in his head, brought to life onstage by a hilarious, straight-shooting Ensemble.

A Strange Loop is ‘A dazzling ride’ (New York Times), ‘Screamingly funny. Unmissable. The musical we’ve been waiting for.’ (Time Out) and this is your ONLY chance to see it in the UK.

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