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A Strange Loop

Michael R. Jackson

On transfer to the Barbican Theatre 17 June 2023 – 9 September 2023


Review by Jonny Wright


A Strange Loop is the Pulitzer Prize winning hit Broadway musical by the American playwright, composer and lyricist Michael R. Jackson. It follows the story of Usher, a black, gay, aspiring musical theatre writer in his mid-20s, whose middle-class upbringing and college education haven’t saved him from poverty and self-loathing in New York – the city he has moved to from Detroit to follow his dreams. 

Rather than becoming the writer of the next Hamilton – a musical he has not seen because he is ‘not rich’ – Usher spends his days working as an usher at The Lion King.  Jackson started writing A Strange Loop whilst ushering at The Lion King and the ‘strange loop’ of meta-ness continues as the play becomes about its lead character, Usher, writing a play. The play that Usher pens is a Tyler Perry-style gospel play to please his agent, his dwindling bank balance, and his god-fearing mom

Unpromising perhaps, but the song ‘Tyler Perry Writes Real Life’ is absolute genius. It begins with Usher politely declining his agent’s opportunity to write the Tyler Perry play on the grounds of artistic integrity. The song ends with a group of ancestors – including Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey and Whitney-motherfucking-Houston – telling Usher: ‘Tyler is a real nigga, and not a cracker pleasing seal nigga’. The song, and the play as a whole, is as mad as it sounds, but witty and intelligent. Tyler Perry has many detractors, but accusations that his work is the height of ‘coonery’ are brought into question when it is highlighted that his audience is all black; whereas black artists who produce more ‘intellectual’ work (as Usher wants to do) are the ones who actually end up pleasing white audiences more. 

A Strange Loop purposefully leans into ‘coonery’ and, at times, becomes an all-singing, all-dancing, Popeye-chicken-eating modern minstrel show – and is brilliant. In between the side-splitting songs, the show often becomes a tender look at black, gay life in the lonely city. Usher is overweight and dark skinned, and looking for black love; but black lovers reject him for being too big and too dark. So, he has a string of very sporadic (once a year on average) relationships with very problematic, racist white men, and he loathes himself for it. Ultimately, it is a play about a young man looking for happiness in a relationship, in himself and in his church-going family back in Detroit – a family which prays for his deliverance from ‘the homo-sexuality’ and fears that he may be punished with HIV like his friend Darnell. 

The show features an all-black cast and the acting is fantastic (not always the case in musicals), especially from the lead Kyle Ramar Freeman who is a tour de force. To quote another song in the show, I loved getting my ‘Inner White Girl’ on and enjoying an unashamedly camp musical. There are no raps to make the show ‘hipper’ or ‘blacker’; instead, the show’s provocative edginess comes from what seems like an authentic exploration of what it is like to navigate the world as an overweight, black, gay artist, striving for success and happiness in a city far from home – where that home, which you left, is even less welcoming than the new world you find yourself in. A Strange Loop has brought the writer Michael R. Jackson the success he so richly deserves. I just hope he has found happiness, too – given the life of a tortured artist can be a strange loop indeed.