Upon first impression, “A Strange Loop” sounds tough going. Featuring an aspiring Broadway writer, it’s a play-within-a-play, the titular term lifted from cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter’s theory of cyclical, self-referential structures.
Indeed, it’s an ambitious production by Michael R. Jackson, which seeks to tackle the ferocity of self-destructive thought patterns, internalised racism and insecurity. But it’s the zany, playful treatment of serious topics which springboarded the musical to critical acclaim in the US (the show has already bagged a couple of Tony Awards and the Pulitzer prize for Drama) and will chime well with the British audience’s even lower tolerance for navel-gazing.
Usher (Kyle Ramar Freeman) is a theatre usher in Manhattan trying to pen his first musical between showings of ‘The Lion King’ and calls of varying coherence from his mother. As a gay black man craving acceptance from overbearing Christian parents, he aspires to create a production that reflects his own identity, where spectres like the ‘white gaytriarchy’ and b-side gospel musicals loom large.
The writing process is only complicated by a chorus of meddlers – among their ranks Usher’s mother, his ‘daily self-loathing’ personified, and none other than Whitney Houston – all eager to provide their two cents at any given opportunity. Get something on police violence in there! More stereotypes! The trash-talking Usher receives also playfully pre-empts audience criticism. “It’s good, but needs shape”, one critic tells him, around the point at which an interval is sorely missing. “The audience needs signposting on how long it is before they can go home!”
Sensitive audiences, beware: after two summers of “Anything Goes” at the Barbican, “A Strange Loop” marks a shift in gear. With anthems like ‘AIDS is God’s punishment’ to clap along to and Grindr hookup scenes that leave little to the imagination, it’s a production which is decisively uncensored. Fresh on the heels of “A Little Life” on the West End and Danny Lee Wynter’s “BLACK SUPERHERO”, the warts-and-all approach to masochistic sexual tendencies is starting to feel a little overdone, as if it’s the new theatrical shorthand for the nadir of self-esteem. Here, a sex scene with a white supremacy fetishist seems particularly gratuitous – a disturbing watch unnecessary to drive home the central theme.
Otherwise, however, it’s the unflinching approach to sex, self-image and casual bigotry which sharpens the musical’s social commentary and sets it apart from other West End productions. Crude dialogue is beautifully balanced by the gentle, cautious quality Freeman brings to the role of Usher, who appears even to surprise himself with the intensity of his own feeling. The cruelty of the protagonist’s internal dialogues are deftly juxtaposed against his approachable exterior, while deeply suppressed anguish bubbles over in a dazzling finale. It doesn’t matter that some references won’t land with British audiences (American actor Tyler Perry takes a particular hammering), as they add to the authenticity and impassioned nature of the production that makes it utterly captivating.
Although Michael R. Jackson claims that “A Strange Loop” isn’t strictly autobiographical, his musical feels like a stolen preview into the mind of a brilliant writer. Which, it turns out, isn’t exactly a relaxing experience – it’s claustrophobic, repetitive, and laced with earworms – but it’s rare, dazzling, and thoroughly worth the watch.
To discover more, visit barbican.org.uk
Посмотреть эту публикацию в Instagram
Imagery courtesy of Marc Brenner.