sun 14/04/2024

A Strange Loop, Barbican review - Black queer musical with confusing concept but an excellent lead | reviews, news & interviews

A Strange Loop, Barbican review - Black queer musical with confusing concept but an excellent lead

A Strange Loop, Barbican review - Black queer musical with confusing concept but an excellent lead

Michael R Jackson's writing talent finds a claustrophobic outlet

Vocal riches: Kyle Ramar Freeman as UsherImages - Marc Brenner

If you are going to see A Strange Loop, the new American musical trailing a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize that has arrived at the Barbican, here’s a checklist of topics to make sure you are on top of first: intersectionality, Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, gospel plays, James Baldwin, the Chitlin’ Circuit, bell hooks, the back catalogue of Tyler Perry. Especially Tyler Perry.

Perry is the Black American actor who has become a billionaire through film comedies featuring him as Madea, aka a middle-aged Black housewife called Mabel Simmons, and the rest of her family. He is the anti-Christ to Usher, the theatre usher whose attempt to write a musical about an usher writing a musical about an usher writing a musical (presumably ad infinitum) gives the piece its title and governing concept. Perry’s vision of Black people is as toxic to them as diabetes, Usher declares.

It’s also advisable to be prepared for the musical’s explicit sexual content, four-letter words of all kinds (including numerous stylings of “dick” and “butt”) and a robust vocabulary that foregrounds the N-word. If that kind of content doesn’t faze you, you will be rewarded with some glorious singing from the rich voice of Kyle Ramar Freeman as Usher, and a mostly simple, beautifully lit staging by Arnulfo Maldonado, using neon strips and lovely spotlight effects (lighting design is by Jen Schriever). 

The music, played by a nine-piece combo, excels in strong top lines for Freeman, backed by skilfully arranged vocal parts for the six Thoughts who crowd Usher’s brain; these appear from archways at the back of the stage in different guises, a cross between a chorus and a mini rep-company. Like the book and lyrics, the score was written by Michael R Jackson, a former NYU student who, yes, used to be a theatre usher. 

Sharlene Hector as Thought 1 in A Strange LoopWas he also confused and self-loathing, like Usher, who has a Thought called Daily Self-Loathing Thought? Another Thought, amusingly, announces he is a senior member of the Second Coming of Stephen Sondheim Society. On all sides, Usher is blocked: by the white “gayrarchy” and his fear of being openly queer. Write a musical about the truth of all that, and it’s there for the whole world to see, by which he particularly means his family back home. Already Cousin Darnelle has died of AIDS, and Usher’s God-fearing parents, who appear a lot as his Thoughts, have no truck with “homosexualities”.

But Usher fears he isn’t queer enough, subjecting himself to anal sex because he thinks he ought to once a year at least, not through some overwhelming lust. A Thought, meanwhile, tells him his submissive sexual behaviour is “slave shit”, and his penetrator is a kind of bad daddy. His Thoughts also make him toy with the idea that he’s too Black, too fat, his penis too small. He yearns for “something deeper, someone who thinks I’m a keeper”. One Thought even taunts him with the possibility that his imaginary best friend is white.

Why can’t he be more like Tyler Perry, a parade of black luminaries asks him? Perry is a “real nigger” who “writes real-life”. The staging goes full-blown anti-Perry in a spoof gospel-play scenario: the kitchen of a family home where dad rails at queers and calls down God’s retribution on them – Aids – while the son’s girlfriend flounces through the house after writing an obscenity on the mother’s car. It’s a “baby-mother reality show”, the son proclaims. Usher appears dressed as different women: an Aunt Jemima type, a glamourpuss in purple glasses and a long furry robe.

Alongside the comedy, there is a quieter strain of melancholy, too, which strikingly surfaces in a closing number, Memory Song, where a moving Usher recalls ordinary domestic scenes such as his mother eating a pork chop, while he turned his back on the Lord. He rejects the “coonery” of Tyler Perry and gospel orthodoxy, but this is the kind of musical the Thought called Agent Fairweather wants from him, he believes. It sells. It creates jobs for Black people. Usher knows he stands apart. Can he change, he asks himself, or is that an illusion?

The success of Jackson’s musical suggests he already has changed the nature of the musical and claimed it for Black queer culture. But it’s a raucous evening whose high-octane approach leads to lots of competing shouting and lost lines. It’s as if director Stephen Brackett has decided, let’s wow them with sheer energy, and to hell with coherence!

The explanation Usher gives one Thought about the strange-loop theory behind his musical is one such casualty. It’s rattled off at speed and not investigated in a way the audience can easily understand. So when the lone woman in the cast, the excellent Sharlene Hector (pictured above), gets a crucial scene as a friendly theatregoer from out of town who has come to the show he is ushering, The Lion King, and chats to him about his writing, her advice seems crucial. Don’t overcomplicate things, she urges, just write without fear. Jackson has given himself some sage advice there, only the second half of which he has fully followed. We remain claustrophobically stuck for the most part inside Usher’s head, with its gnawing obsessions and self-doubt. Has the loop been broken by the end? I honestly wasn’t sure. Go for the singing, but don't wrestle with the concept.

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