‘A Strange Loop’ tells comedic, honest story of embracing oneself

Caryl Anne Francia, Business Editor

In “A Strange Loop,” playwright Michael R. Jackson manages to portray through his own writing process, in a 110-minute musical without intermission, what young, aspiring writers face: the struggle of writing a story that satisfies other people’s expectations, while also staying true to one’s self.

The musical originally ran in off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizon in 2019. Since then, it won a Pulitzer Prize and transferred to Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre. With 11 nominations, it’s now the subject of Tony Award buzz.

The show follows a Black, queer playwright named Usher — like Jackson, who has a name similar to that of a famous singer — who aptly has a low-paying ushering job at the Broadway production of “The Lion King” to gain footing in the theater world. Jaquel Spivey, who portrays the lead, delivers an upbeat, refreshing performance.

As explained in the lively opening number, Usher attempts to write a “big, Black and queer-ass American Broadway show.” His musical, also titled “A Strange Loop,” is about a character of the same name with the same job who writes a musical called “A Strange Loop” and so on.

He is followed by six human representations of his thoughts, who mostly poke fun at his insecurities and take on dual roles as people Usher imagines, such as his anti-LGBTQ parents.

Each stands out with their distinct voice and witty charm, but together with Usher, they produce a single, sweet-sounding harmony.

The musical is filled with a certain brand of comedy, with Jackson even having Usher conjure deceased Black figures like Harriet Tubman and Whitney Houston. While heavy on racy, dark humor that can be absurd at times — after all, this is all in the lead character’s imagination — it does tell a heartwarming story.

The musical’s catchy show tunes include profound, profanity-laced lyrics that address the personal and social issues Jackson wants to be addressed, despite Usher’s low self-esteem to do so.

For the lead character, it is hard for him to express his frustration over the expectations that come with telling stories as a Black person and his desire to change dated views within the Black community. After being asked to ghostwrite a gospel play for screenwriter Tyler Perry, Usher finds a means to grow, despite being critical of Perry’s work.

In the most elaborate number, Spivey conveys the strong emotions of not just Usher but also Jackson, leaving the audience wanting to hug him. The result of this may be heartbreaking, but Usher’s ending leaves the audience satisfied.

Overcoming the struggles that the lead parallels from his own, Jackson ultimately succeeds at writing his musical. He even boasts a talented gender-diverse, Black cast to perform it.

Jackson captures what playwriting is all about — letting oneself be vulnerable and showing their world to others here and now. This musical is for anyone, not just writers, afraid of going forward while keeping true to themselves.

Theatergoers may want to be cautioned of the show’s strong language and sensitive issues pertaining to race and the LGBTQ community, but given Jackson’s intent, they should confront these.