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.