Broadway hit transforms issues of race, identity, and sexuality

The nominations for the 75th Annual Tony Awards for excellence on Broadway were announced on Monday. 

The Tony Awards feel special this year, after almost two whole seasons where theatres were dark, voices were silent, and dancers were still. Despite setbacks that included delays and closures because of Covid variants over the past six months, this year saw the first full Broadway season in three years. One show out of the 34 shows eligible for nominations cleaned up on Monday; it’s called A Strange Loop

I feel lucky to have seen it last week because now it is sure to sell out this run. A Strange Loop is up for 11 awards: best musical, direction, lead actor, featured actor, featured actress, original score, orchestrations, book, scenic design, lighting design, and sound design of a musical.

I saw A Strange Loop off-Broadway in 2019 too, and was so taken with the show that I took the first possible opportunity I could find to learn more about the creator. The man behind the script, or as it’s called on Broadway, the book, is Michael R Jackson. I interviewed him later that year for an arts programme called Studio 360 on NPR. In 2020, Jackson was awarded The Pulitzer Prize for Drama for this piece of work, described by The Pulitzer as follows:

“A metafictional musical that tracks the creative process of an artist transforming issues of identity, race, and sexuality that once pushed him to the margins of the cultural mainstream, into a meditation on universal human fears and insecurities.”

A show that’s ‘big, black and queer’

The show, in three words, is big, black, and queer. It’s a fabulous and heart-breaking story with hilarious and beautiful songs, and you are surely wondering what it is about by now. It’s really quite simple, Jackson explained to me.

A Strange Loop is a musical about a young black gay man named Usher, who works as an usher at a Broadway show, who is writing a musical about a young black gay man named Usher, who works as an usher at a Broadway show, and sort of cycling through his own perception of himself and his own self-hatred.” 

A Strange Loop has 11 nominations at this year’s Tony Awards.

This narrative begs the obvious question; as a black, gay man sharing his name with a pop star and struggling to get by while writing a Broadway show, how much of the story comes from Jackson’s own life? 

“There is this perception that it’s about me, but at the same time, it’s not autobiographical. Regardless of that, it’s emotionally true,” he says.

Anybody lucky enough to get to New York and get their hands on a ticket to ‘A Strange Loop’ must do so. There are a couple of consolation prizes for those who can’t. You can listen to A Strange Loop Tiny Desk Concert on NPR. 

The Broadway cast has recorded the show, which will soon be released; meanwhile, the original Off-Broadway cast recording is available now. That recording is terrific, featuring Larry Owens, who played the lead role of Usher in that production. 

Owens’ voice is divine, and his performance in the production was stunning; he was vulnerable and powerful at the same time. As well as an extraordinarily talented singer, he truly has funny bones and is a comedy favorite. Since his turn as Usher, he has appeared in several TV series, including Search Party and Hacks.

The Broadway cast features Jaquel Spivey as Usher in his Broadway debut, alongside Antwayn Hopper, L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, James Jackson, Jr, John-Andrew Morrison, and Jason Veasey. 

Spivey, as Usher, is clearly the lead, but as I sat enthralled by the show, I didn’t for a second wonder how Spivey managed such a high-pressure debut. His performance is assured and adorable, swinging quickly between ferocious and funny and easily keeping the audience with him throughout the entire show. 

The other actors make up a kind of neurotic Greek chorus, representing his “extremely obnoxious thoughts”. They get lots of laughs and groans of recognition from the audience, particularly “daily self-loathing” and the “supervisor of sexual ambivalence”.

As well as being fun and impressive to watch on technical and musical levels, A Strange Loop resonated with me deeply on an emotional level. 

Audience energy

Last week when I saw it for the second time, the energy from the audience was palpable. At times, the audience was laughing and crying; people really felt it. Two young men sitting behind me, hooting and clicking their fingers with delight throughout the jokes and the musical numbers, and gasping at the difficult and sad parts, stood holding one another long after the curtains had fallen. 

This story, this character, trapped as he is in his own body and head, is incredibly specific. It is a testament to the power of art that so many of us who see this show, so many people with so many entirely different experiences of being alive, can wholly relate to it.

I was sure this connection was deliberate on the part of Jackson and asked him if he wrote it ‘for’ anyone in particular. His answer fascinated me. 

“From the early days of this piece. I used to always say, ‘this piece is for black gay men’ and all that. Like, I used to really be on a soapbox about that. 

But as I kept working on it, I just started to really reflect on the ways in which I wanted this piece to be about what it feels to be a self in general, and a black queer self in particular.

His reasoning comes from his understanding that the white gaze, often centred in art made in America, is not a part of his creative process. 

“I wanted to have that sort of dual experience because people are often wanting to put black folks in this sort of weird box as though our experience of being black is not also just the experience of being human. De Bois talks about this, about having double consciousness. Like, we’re just a person on Earth, but this thing of race has been put on top of us, and we’re treated in certain ways, but we never stop also just being ourselves.”

This humane perspective helped me understand why the show connects with all sorts of people. 

“And so as a result of that, if you’re a person in the audience who is not black, who is not queer or whatever, or some combination of that, you see someone being this thing that you aren’t, but also experiencing things that you’ve experienced. 

“And I think it’s important for people to understand that.”

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