08 July 2022

The Exorcism at the Heart of A Strange Loop

I imagine a lot of people go see A Strange Loop and don't realise what they're getting themselves into. I imagine the older white woman sitting next to me was often confused by what she was seeing and hearing, and with me blocking the aisle and no intermission, she was stuck.

It's a great play for thinking, helped along by the presence of the main character's Thoughts on stage. I thought a lot about struggling in a world that seems to reject you, about living close to your dreams but never quite in them. I thought about stories that need to be told, that the stories are often painful, frightening. We are never best equipped to tell them, but their necessity draws them out. To engage in theatre is to reckon with fear.

Sometimes a play is not a story but a set of feelings. A Strange Loop is more like that, even though we do get glimpses of a story. It is an introspective. It reminded me of Hair, but Hair suffers from whininess. A Strange Loop doesn't whine; it bellows.

“What is it about?” the typical Broadway audience member (white, straight, entitled) wonders. “Is this another one of those gay AIDS-obsessed plays like Rent? We love the gays.” (I'm sure you do.) Usher describes himself as “fat, Black, queer” and six Thoughts help him tangle with issues of loneliness, acceptance, creativity, and, above all, his parents. He is writing the play as it happens. He and it are complicated.

The utopia Usher (and by extension Michael R. Jackson) cruises can only be found in its negation. Usher is strongly opposed to the work of Tyler Perry, often critiqued as trans- and homophobic even as Perry is celebrated for his contributions to society as a Black artist and philanthropist. Usher seeks out the company of “Inwood Daddy” to quench his sexual thirst, only to find himself debased with racial slurs. Usher's ideal situation, where someone like him is accepted in society, where he can find love and not be lonely all the time, where his own work representing fat-Black-queerness has a place, is never plainly stated; rather, it is elegantly shown through negatives.

When we first meet Usher's parents, they are many voices and bodies. Their size and vocal power indicates the level of fear Usher has at confronting them. This is the fear that must be vanquished by the end of the play. Ironically, Usher succeeds by mounting a Perry-style gospel play reflecting his mother's worldview back at her—AIDS is God's punishment. The tableaux and music are beautifully grotesque; the feeling is one of horror. The audience feels the horror that Usher's mother may be feeling, given the look on her face. For Usher, the prolonged moment is one of catharsis. Even though he doesn't seem to get the resolution he wants from his mother (who still loves him but still thinks God will punish him for his queerness) he does come to a realization: that he is in charge of how he feels about the events of and people in his life. The outgoing message turns positive as the pressure of the play's negativity eases off. The Artaudian exorcism is complete.

This is not a linear play, and while I maintain that all musical theatre belongs in a category with absurdism, A Strange Loop is further along on the spectrum than most. The main character must be defined in order to be the main character, but the main character seeks to (re)define himself through the play. Nothing actually happens in the play; ostensibly, everything that “happens” occurs in the mind of Usher. A Strange Loop fully exposes the theatre and its double—it does and does not exist at the same time. It only exists when it does, and when it stops existing, it lingers.

I imagine there are those who will or have analyzed A Strange Loop through the lens of narrative structure. I imagine they are missing something by not delving into the play's metatheatrics. I imagine it doesn't matter. The play is wonderfully singular.

05 July 2022

Zenzile Confronts Us

There exists a genre of theatre that examines the life of a single person deemed great or otherwise revered by a swath of society. Less notable examples include Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Musical Show, and King of the Road: The Roger Miller Story. Terrence McNally’s Master Class lives in this genre, with its dualist exploration of the life and work (musical and otherwise) of Maria Callas, as does Lawrence and Lee’s Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. The latter carries a message beyond its biographical content—individualism is good?—making the theatrical performance more than just a dramatization of a life story. The performance becomes a charge for the audience.

The argument could be made that examining the lives of people who lived within certain messages or political spheres merely amplifies that message or politics. There’s nothing transcendental about repetition, as Thoreau would no doubt aver. In the case of Dreaming Zenzile, a biographical memory play about Miriam Makeba, not only are the messages of its subject amplified, but they resonate with other messages very present and vital to society today.1 Makeba fought against segregation and racism through her music and her actions—she was as stateless as Marx when South Africa, her home, rejected her application for a new passport—while being a beloved performer in the western world, facile in the languages of jazz and pop music. She used her popularity to raise awareness of the cultural destruction that had happened and continued to happen in South Africa and all over the colonized world. Her story is ripe for dramatization, but what Somi Kakoma does in her portrayal and assembly of Makeba’s life events is honed for the cultural and political battles going on today. 

Somi is a product of Africa.2 Her parents emigrated to America from East Africa, one from Rwanda and the other from Uganda. She is also a force in the international jazz scene; when Makeba died in 2008, Somi brought together some of Makeba’s collaborators, colleagues, and friends to memorialize her at the former Village Gate, where she had performed before.3 It was Somi’s first attempt at connecting with Makeba’s spirit. Dreaming Zenzile is the fullest fruit of that connection. Makeba’s spirit seems to possess Somi during its entirety. 

Dreaming Zenzile reimagines Makeba’s final concert as a mesh of memories, of traumas and triumphs.4 Its situation—in 2008, just after Barack Obama becomes the first Black President of the United States—points the audience’s attention to the “now” even as the events of “then” play on stage. Within the first ten minutes, the audience is indirectly told to keep aware of the current ongoing struggle against white supremacy, racism, and neocolonialism in America. That injunction is made more direct in the second act, when the audience is directly put on the spot—“Why are you here?!” Miriam demands with the thrust of two fingers on one hand pointing, or maybe it’s Somi herself asking the question—during a monologue delivered in a tight spotlight that deserves every accolade available. Here is where Dreaming Zenzile is most like Master Class, but Somi’s work never feels dry or stale. They are Somi’s own words for Makeba, put through Makeba, and they are words the audience needs to hear. “Why are you here?!” functions similarly to the repeated “Wake up!” that ends Spike Lee’s School Daze. The audience is commanded to reckon with itself.

1. Somi Kakoma, Dreaming Zenzile, performance 15 June 2022 7:00pm, New York Theatre Workshop.
2. While she is credited as Somi Kakoma for Dreaming Zenzile, she typically performs under her first name only.
3. A New York Times article from 1961 announcing her presence (“rolling her remarkably bright, large eyes and clicking like a field of beetles”) at the Village Gate is buried among advertising and the restaurant guide. Arthur Gelb, “Miriam Makeba and Leon Bibb Open Shows,” The New York Times, 5 May 1961, sec. food fashions family furnishings, p. 24.
4. King of the Road: The Roger Miller Story has a similar conceit, though its two acts are two different final concerts—the first is the final broadcast of The Roger Miller Show on television, and the second is Miller’s final live performance before his death. The conceit is handled more clumsily in King of the Road, the mechanism is inartfully on display throughout, and Mary Miller (Roger Miller’s wife when he died and also a writer of the show) couldn’t help but insert herself only towards the show’s end, as if she was a saving grace for Miller. (Cort Cassidy and Mary Miller, King of the Road: The Roger Miller Story, performances 27 April – 14 May 2017, The Laguna Playhouse, Laguna Beach, California.) Somi deftly inserts herself throughout Dreaming Zenzile without calling attention to the fact.