Having made its way over after being a triumph across the pond, award-winning musical of the moment, A Strange Loop, is playing a limited engagement at the Barbican Theatre in London. Unlike anything else you'll ever see, this production packs a punch, being one you're certain to never forget.
Usher is a young, Black, gay man attempting to write a a musical about a young, Black, gay man writing a musical about a young, Black, gay man... and so on. True to its title, this becomes A Strange Loop. Exploring everything he knows his life to be, surrounded by a company of six 'Thoughts' from inside his mind (such as vital 'daily self loathing') and alongside some other caricatures too, Usher tells a story that will ensure you leave the auditorium with a new understanding of the world 105 minutes later.
Beginning with the first of many tunes to assist in illustrating the plot and introduce Usher's plans while he is stuck at his 'proper' job - being a Disney theatre usher, no less - the 'Intermission Song' is not only a instant bombardment with the struggles of being a budding musical writer, as well as a swift demonstration of the vocal range of the performers, and though Kyle Ramar Freeman is leading the proceedings as the main character, his 'Thoughts', Sharlene Hector, Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea, Yeukayi Ushe, Tendai Humphrey Sitima, Danny Bailey and Eddie Elliott each get a fair share of elements to take on throughout the piece. Their chorus is often chaotic yet profound in unison, highlighting the many constant battles that have to be fought for Usher.
In his attempt to write the ultimate 'big, Black and queer-ass American Broadway show', Usher's personal experience shines through - both the joys and hardships, but mainly the struggles he endures with his appearance and race as he navigates the gay dating scene. Exploring the apparent hierarchy and status conflicts within the community while highlighting positions of vulnerability, a musical that thrives on humour and bright liberation of self to begin with, rapidly shows undertones of the meaningful message beneath.
Undeniably for adult viewers only, A Strange Loop is packed with innuendo... and some much more blatant sexual talk (and action). Adding to the mix, there is an abundance of racism and homophobia alongside the strong themes, but each component is completely necessary for it to be as daring as it is. Religion is a prominent discussion too, with the intersectionality that has led to discrimination being an important conversation to be having as a society. Requiring full focus from the audience, as the plot frequently jumps to different depths to mirror Usher's racing mind, keeping up for the whole show as a single act may be tough, but worth it for the overall vision from Michael R. Jackson's script.
Including various nods to other credits such as the work of Tyler Perry, and several Black icons and trailblazers throughout history (from a '12 Years of Slave' actor clutching an Oscar, to Whitney Houston... random, funny, but meaningful) contextual references further demonstrate the restrictions on Black media and representation in the arts, and the overwhelming importance of showing this with prominence. Although Usher's experience is unique to him, many sections of his story - including the most harrowing and heartbreaking parts - are undoubtedly relatable to viewers who share some familiarity, making it all the more crucial to get it out there. And regardless, consuming content like A Strange Loop only deepens the understanding we have for others, which is nothing harmful in instances like this.
A huge bonus for this production is the striking lighting (devised by Jen Schriever) which has a major impact on the piece. From whole stage to spotlight work, in conjunction with slick direction from Stephen Brackett, and choreography by Raja Feather Kelly to be enjoyed, often in contrast to the bleak subliminal ideas, the combination works well. Furthermore, the set, designed by Arnulfo Maldonado, adds an interesting dynamic to the piece, particularly with the relatively small cast, its box formation may represent segregation, as Usher's 'Thoughts' appear individually 'stuck' in their own space at times. During others, the characters come together to role-play scenarios with his family (interchanging the actors who play each member); his drunken dad and his disappointed voicemails or mixed up mother, with love, shame and fear for her son.
Using plenty of tracks to assist in building the narrative, some witty lyrics (music and book is by Michael R. Jackson), create a selection of uplifting and catchy tunes to get a balance between thoughtful and humorous. 'Inner White Girl' simultaneously mocks the ease and lack of restriction Usher feels that they face in comparison, while suggesting his need to pretend to be better. Similarly, 'Exile in Gayville' adopts this blended meaning approach too, as does 'Writing a Gospel Musical' which depicts the expectations of Usher's mother, trying to support his work, but unable to break away from her stronger beliefs. Finishing with the titular song, the final of the show, leaves the most beautifully open ended closure - while the musical is over, A Strange Loop continues.
Unapologetically big, Black and queer, A Strange Loop definitely plays with your emotions, but ultimately champions, and speaks from the heart with honesty as a voice for all the 'Usher's' out there. Tackling many unspoken areas with utmost consideration, there is a desperate need for more productions to follow suit. Not a single person will leave the theatre without a new perspective of the world: groundbreaking.