By Tulis McCall
Umpty-ump years ago some of my chums in the college theater department announced a field trip. We were going to the Bushnell in Hartford to see Bette Midler – whoever that was. I didn’t care. I was part of the group, and whither they went, so did I. Barry Manilow was the musical director. Big applause. Then Bette appeared. The entire house stood up and cheered. Including me, who had no idea who this woman was, but something in the air said, “Stand!”
This is exactly what happened after the opening number “Intermission Song” in the Pulitzer Prize winning musical Strange Loop. We did not stand, in this instance, but we cheered because a powerful force had engulfed the theatre and every person in it. Let me be clear – the song’s refrain goes thusly: “Big, black and queer-ass American Broadway show.” On account of that is what this show is.
The audience, mind you, is like Ivory Soap – 99 and 44/100 percent pure. And still the tsunami that is this show came upon us.
Usher (Jaquel Spivey) is a large man, fresh out of college with a degree in playwriting and boatload of debt. He is ushering at The Lion King and consumed with the voices that tell him is is a nothing burger and will ever be so. He is a Black, queer writer writing a musical about a Black, queer writer writing a musical about a Black, queer writer…
The brilliant chorus [Antwayn Hopper (Thought 6), L Morgan Lee (Thought 1), John-Michael Lyles (Thought 3), James Jackson, Jr. (Thought 2), John-Andrew Morrison (Thought 4), and Jason Veasey (Thought 5)] glides on and off stage embodying the entire list of self deprecating messages: It’s Your Daily Self-Loathing! And I had some time to kill so I thought I’d drop in to remind you of just how truly worthless you are. OR It’s your Financial Faggotry and baby, we need to chat about this situation with Shittybank Student Loans!
We are warned that the “N” word will be featured. We are warned that there will be sex. We are warned and warned. The warnings prove true. Usher is a bottom feeder, no doubt about it. So why do we stay? Because those voices, those doubts, the spells of listening to the pop music loop in our heads that will drown out all the facts we are avoiding – those are our voices as well. The rule of creating art is: the more specific you are the more universal the truth. Michale R. Jackson is very, very specific. This black gay man wandering around New York wondering why life is so terrible – that man himself is a voice in all our heads.
How about selling out? How about writing a Tyler Perry script? Or a Gospel play? Something that would bring in money and, better yet, please the parents. Especially the mother (John-Andrew Morrison ) who has no boundaries and who is certain that once the gay is washed from her son all will be right with the world. Except it won’t because that ain’t gonna happen. Because the loop here is that this man who takes the classic hero’s journey to figure out what is wrong with him discovers there is nothing wrong with him. Mama and every other belittling voice can all take a one way trip to whatever. As this story winds down we see an Usher who is unleashing his lion, uncovering the hidey holes that served him in the past, and standing squarely in the question of “Who am I?” Which brings him back to where he started. Except this time he has some mileage under his belt.
We are the ones that we seek. It is ever so.
Would that we all took a page from his book.
Not for nuthin’ but this journey to Broadway took 20 years. It began as a monologue written after 9/11. On the way it made stops at Playwrights Horizons and Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Talk about a strage loop.
A STRANGE LOOP by Michael R. Jackson, directed by Stephen Brackett, choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly
WITH Jaquel Spivey, Antwayn Hopper (Thought 6), L Morgan Lee (Thought 1), John-Michael Lyles (Thought 3), James Jackson, Jr. (Thought 2), John-Andrew Morrison (Thought 4), and Jason Veasey (Thought 5).
A STRANGE LOOP features set design by Arnulfo Maldonado, costumes by Montana Levi Blanco, lighting design by Jen Schriever, sound design by Drew Levy, music direction by Rona Siddiqui, orchestrations by Charlie Rosen