From L to R: J. Cameron Barnett, Tarra Conner Jones, Jordan Barbour, Malachi McCaskill, Avionce Hoyles, John-Andrew Morrison, and Jamari Johnson Williams in "A Strange Loop" at Center Theatre Group's Ahmanson Theatre June 5 through June 30, 2024. Photo by Alessandra Mello.

A Strange Loop

The award-winning Broadway show on tour.

Written by:
Karen Weinstein
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Here is the challenge: Is it possible for a self-described “mass of undesirable, unlovable, unemployable, unacceptable fat, Black homosexual molecules floating in space without purpose or meaning” to write a fast paced, humorous, no-holds-barred musical that wins both a Pulitzer and a Tony? In a word, YES, and it is at the Ahmanson Theatre until June 30, before taking off for a multi city tour.

I have never been a fan of trigger warnings, but one is appropriate here. Reference is made to the N** word at the start, then “nigger” is thrown around with self-deprecating abandon. The language itself is as raw as one’s own inner thoughts can be. They are not cleansed for airing on prime time. While they are not appropriate for all ears, they lend poignancy and authenticity to the action on stage

Author Michael R. Jackson – please don’t confuse him with the other Michael Jackson he tells us in the program and from the stage – holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the NYU School of Drama. He began writing A Strange Loop in his 20’s, a period of great inner turmoil and angst in his life which is the material of the story. But is it a story? Well, not exactly. The rules of a story arc have been pushed aside. The strange loop of the action is woven of the energetic, intrusive thoughts that paralyze him. It is more than the paralysis of the blank page that most writers experience. Painters confront it facing a pristine white canvas too. For Usher, Jackson’s on-stage avatar, it is a paralysis of life in general. His intrusive thoughts are represented by a talented cast of characters who torment and taunt him. They slide between genders, dance with abandon, and keep returning to how undesirable, black, gay, ugly and fat he is. Just in case that is not enough, the introjects of his Christian, homosexual rejecting, gospel loving mother are ever present. She would like her son to be a Tyler Perry, Christian, actor-writer, critical failure, but incredibly wealthy. Instead she has a suffering son who wants to be loved uncritically by her and the rest of the world, but cannot love or even respect himself.

So what is this Strange Loop. A bit hard to describe; Greek philosophers through moderns have grappled with the idea of thoughts and actions which keep coming around in a strange loop reaching beyond the individual. In Jackson’s essay he quotes W.E.B. DuBois who “coined the term ‘double consciousness’ to describe the uniquely African American experience of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.’” Is that uniquely and African American experience? I am not so sure; however it is real and potentially crippling.

So, how to take this mass of rejection and inaction and turn it into an uplifting, entertaining hundred minutes? Don’t look for a happy or romantic ending. Remember, I told you the story arc is just about flat. In addition to Jackson’s book, music, and lyrics credit certainly should go to Annulfo Maldonado’s scenic design which is as active and complicated as the choreography of Raja Feather Kelly. It all comes together with casual energy. Clearly Jackson has risen above the eddy of his twenties to become a talented entertaining playwright. Has he risen above the intrusive thoughts? My guess is like all of us, the past does not stay totally buried regardless of our subsequent success or apparent equanimity. Ever heard of the Imposter Complex? If so you will feel some of his pain.
Karen Weinstein
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