Where to begin with a show like A Strange Loop? Its reputation precedes it – having already picked up numerous Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and also the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, expectations have unsurprisingly been set very high. It’s a relatively short show – this one-act (no interval) musical runs just shy of 100 minutes, and yet what it attempts in that limited timeframe is far more ambitious than pretty much anything else playing right now.
We’d like to succinctly summarise the plot but it’s not straightforward to explain. Our central character is a theatre usher called Usher (Kyle Ramar Freeman); a young black queer man living in New York, he is writing a musical about a black queer man. In Usher’s show, this man is attempting to write a musical about a black queer man. It’s a cyclical piece – hence the ‘loop’ of the title – and if the story doesn’t sound meta enough already, it further pokes fun at the theatre industry, whether that’s at other shows, or the audiences that attend those shows – including the one watching A Strange Loop.
It’s an intelligent, emotionally complicated show. Usher is a vulnerable, conflicted young man; on stage we see him surrounded by his thoughts, with his daily dose of self-loathing or regular reminders of his sexual ambivalence. His six thoughts also double as other characters in Usher’s life: we are introduced to his doctor, who accuses him of squandering his youth by not having enough sex, with a song about PrEP – which contains some inspired lyrics (we’ve never heard ‘Truvada’ used as a rhyme before). We also encounter Usher’s religious family, who play a significant role in his inner torment and his quest to be accepted for being his authentic self.
One aspect of the show we appreciated is that it’s not afraid to tackle very real and current issues within the queer community. Whether challenging the perception that the cisgender white gay man is top of the queer hierarchy (the ‘white gaytriarchy’), or shining a light – in explicit and often uncomfortable detail – on the fetishisation of queer people of colour by white men, with the problematic and often racist language and tone that can accompany that, it really feels like a show which is alive and alert to today’s conversations.
There are other aspects which are likely to land less well, especially now the musical has transferred from Broadway to London. There are countless references to the works of Tyler Perry, who is far from a household name here. A Strange Loop does a reasonable job of getting across the nature of his works, however, and wheels out some of the outdated caricatures associated with his shows, thankfully in a way that doesn’t feel offensive – it does so in a knowing way, with an awareness that this is not an acceptable way to represent black people on the stage. The play also references specific areas of Manhattan – we’re not sure a London audience will be aware of the social demographic of Inwood, where one scene unfolds.
While there may be some elements which don’t work as well as we’d like, there are plenty of incredible moments elsewhere. Whether it’s a genuinely brilliant opening number, or an unexpected staging reveal, or an excoriating speech delivered by Usher to his father about the complexities of being gay while also being too fat or too effeminate – which, on press night, received an impromptu round of applause – it’s a show with sprinklings of genuine theatrical magic.
How to summarise our thoughts on A Strange Loop? It’s such an intelligent, complex and nuanced musical that we feel we’ve barely scratched the surface with this review. It’s a unique and unpredictable piece of theatre – thoughtful, beautiful, painful, sad, challenging, provocative and occasionally hilarious. We would recommend people see this while they can: it feels like an important piece of queer theatre, and one that considers a whole range of important issues that aren’t really represented elsewhere on the stage. Just don’t expect to leave the theatre on a high – it’s not that kind of night.
GAY TIMES gives A Strange Loop – 4/5
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