In addition to all the free tickets, one of the great benefits of being a theater critic is that you’re sent the script. This email ritual not only makes it unnecessary for critics to transcribe what the actors are saying on stage while we’re supposed to be watching the play, it gives us a look into the playwright’s mind. These telling insights are called “stage directions.”
My favorite stage direction this year can be found in the script for Michael R. Jackson’s breathtaking new musical, “A Strange Loop,” which opened Monday at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons in association with Page 73. In the parentheses of one particular stage direction, it reads “mockingly sings a la ‘The Color Purple.'”
“A Strange Loop” is genuinely breathtaking because it forces you to gasp before you break out laughing. It’s also a brilliant antidote to musicals like “The Color Purple” and the recent “The Secret Life of Bees,” which lets us know God created black people to take care of the white Miss Annes of this world. “Loop” is that rare musical that doesn’t have its black characters caterwauling (see stage direction above) unless as a form of parody. (Alex Hawthorn’s subtle sound design actually allows us to hear the performers’ real singing voices.)
Also prominent in the “Loop” stage directions is the name Tyler Perry. The inspired leitmotif of Jackson’s musical is the creator of the “Madea” movies and several gospel-tinged plays. Not since Seth Rogen skewered Kim Jung-un in “The Interview” has a living person been so thoroughly roasted for our consumption.
In the Playbill, Jackson writes that his musical is “not formally autobiographical,” but it is about a young man in a “fat, black queer body” who’s trying to write a musical about his own life. The character is named Usher (it refers to the character’s job as an usher in a Disney musical on Broadway, not the famous singer), and everybody wants Usher to write something that is “unapologetically black” or “about slavery or police violence so the allies in [the] audience have something intersectional to hold onto.” Or better yet, Usher should write a gospel play so that Tyler Perry can put his name on it.
How resistant is Usher to writing a Tyler Perry gospel play for the chitlin circuit?
“His plays are worse for black people than dia-f—ing-betes!” shouts Usher.
Fortunately, Usher’s crazed imagination takes him there and “A Strange Loop” features a Tyler Perry gospel play as written by a very out man in a fat, black queer body who also happened to be a major, unapologetic bottom.
In addition to Tyler Perry, that’s the other even more breathtaking thing about “Loop.” It contains more references, euphemisms and slurs about gay anal sex than those best-selling twin manuals “How to Top/How to Bottom Like a Porn Star.”
“Loop” isn’t exactly politically correct on this sensitive subject. Usher’s predilection for wanting to “take it” is very much an extension of his Low Self-Esteem, which is actually a character (briefly seen walking across the stage) and “My Inner White Girl,” which he sings about. Often.
No, Usher is not a happy gay camper and never does he turn into one. In that lead role, Larry Owens’ powerhouse performance owes much to Harvey Fierstein in the original “Torch Song Trilogy.” Since it’s 40 years later, however, Owens doesn’t ever have to play cute to win our empathy. He uses his heft simply to embody large appetites, resentment, defiance and talent.
Have I mentioned that Jackson wrote the music, lyrics, and the book for “Loop”? Usually, that three-hat trick in the musical theater world is the mark of death. Jackson wears all hats with fabulous style. Suffice to say that his music, which runs the gamut from patter to gospel to pop to torch song, always does full justice to lyrics like “My d-ck too small! My d-ck too small!/ Too fat and black to live at all/ So why don’t you just ravage me with your/ white gay Dan Savagery?”
There are other, even more wonderful lyrics, but I can’t print them here. Usher’s resistance to all things Tyler Perry, as well as “The Color Purple,” labels him a “race traitor” and an “a– licker.” His mother and father are even less forgiving. “Loop” makes clear that LGBT is a unique minority, the only one that invites disapproval from your own family.
“Loop” begins with and keeps returning to a song titled “Usher! Usher!” It’s much like the “Bobby! Bobby!” refrain in “Company.” The Stephen Sondheim musical goes in and out of its hero’s mind, occasionally falling to Earth for some of its extended book moments (by George Furth) where Bobby visits a pot-smoking couple or dates one of his three girlfriends.
“Loop” never leaves Usher’s head. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set design features a series of moving portals through which half a dozen actors run wild. Each is credited only as “Thought” and given a number, one through six. The device sounds undramatic and vague, but Stephen Brackett’s incisive direction, coupled with Raja Feather Kelly’s surreal choreography, allows each performer to register immediately as parent, friend, agent, uninterested producer or Grindr hook-up.
Jackson is a better writer than Furth, who provided more than one sit-com moment in “Company.” Jackson’s book scenes recall the best of Arthur Laurents, and that would be the chilling scene in “Gypsy” where Mama Rose picks out her daughter’s stripper costume.
Usher’s encounters with anonymous men produce that same frisson of shock. In “Gypsy,” we recognize a dramatic shift in Mama Rose. In “Loop,” it’s the sex partner’s identity that not once but twice is flipped in front of our eyes.
There’s no nudity in “Loop,” but one of those simulated sex scenes provoked a few walkouts at the preview I attended. Even without nudity, it’s frankly more provocative than anything in “Slave Play,” which set a pretty high bar for kinky interracial sex.
Jackson’s title can easily be explained as that strange loop we all put ourselves through when we carry on arguments in our own mind, giving imaginary dialogue to other people. More specifically, the title comes from the book “I Am a Strange Loop,” by Douglas Hofstadter, who wrote, “In the end, we are self-perceiving, self-inventing, locked-in mirages that are little miracles of self-reference.”
Before this quote makes “Loop” sound in any way pretentious, Usher paraphrases it to describe the musical he’s trying to write when he cruises a gorgeous guy on the subway. Because Jackson is such a talented writer, he turns Hofstadter’s words into one of the funniest and saddest pick-up lines ever spoken on stage or in the movies.
In addition to Owens, the amazing “Loop” ensemble features Antwayn Hopper, L. Morgan Lee, James Jackson Jr., John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, and Jason Veasey.