A Strange Loop

ACT-SF's Outstanding Production Of A Daring Musical

By: - Apr 26, 2024

Under the best of circumstances, getting a play produced on Broadway is a longshot, even if it doesn’t have any particular obstacles that might deter audience attendance.  To assess traits that undermine a play’s marketability, a funnel can be used as a visual representation of how unpopular aspects of a play can accumulate, resulting in vanishing audiences.  A large volume at the top of the funnel (bigger audience) gets more restricted the further it goes down (smaller audience).

Consider the likelihood of “A Strange Loop” reaching Broadway.  The funnel of impediments that accumulate, starting at the top, looks something like this:  It’s a musical ----- with book, music, and lyrics from a writer without a professional theater credit ----- about a fat man ----- who is also black ----- and queer ----- and totally navel-gazing, self-referential about being fat, black, and queer ----- having an all-black cast ----- that is almost all male ----- whose language concerning sexual parts and private bodily activities is totally unfiltered and almost constant ----- that uses the n-word with great frequency ----- and includes simulated homosexual sex.

Of course, you wouldn’t be seeing this review if the weight of these obstacles weren’t overcome.  Michael R. Jackson’s play “A Strange Loop” won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama; Tony Awards for Best New Musical and Best Book of a Musical plus nine more nominations; and many other recognitions from its Off-Broadway beginnings.  Using the Broadway creative team, the San Francisco premiere from American Conservatory Theater offers a captivating, high energy, yet empathetic production that found a wildly supportive audience on opening night.  Adventuresome and more open-minded theatergoers will like much if not all in this production, but the caution flag is up for those who might be offended by the rawest of language and action.

The central figure, and surrogate for the playwright, is Usher, whose outline is given above.  Further, he is 25 years old, from Detroit, and trying to make it as a playwright in New York.  Fittingly, while he pursues his dreams, he ekes out a living as a theater usher.  The playwright’s choosing a character’s name that is shared by a famous R&B singer is no accident, because Jackson has suffered with that issue all his life.  And much of the playwright’s subtext concerns matters of “Who am I?  Am I Michael Jackson? Whose adulation do I deserve? Am I really loved?  What matters?  Am I a negro?  Am I their negro?” Those in the Bay Area familiar with Brian Copeland’s popular theater work will particularly appreciate the last two questions.

So, what is a strange loop?  It’s a rather obscure psychological term that ….. Well, it’s complicated.  You can look it up.  What is “A Strange Loop” about?  At one level, it’s about Usher’s obsession with his physical being and his sex life.  But the text also cascades metatheatrically into his professional aspirations.  It’s a play about a fat, black, gay man writing a play about a fat, black, gay man writing a play about a…… 

Malachai McCaskill is absolutely stunning as Usher.  He completely earns the compassion of the audience including those who don’t identify with the personal traits of his character.  Even his vulgarity conveys a sense of innocence and yearning to make sincere connection.  With warm charisma, McCaskill gives a bravura performance, being on stage almost full time and bearing a heavy singing load.  His vocal range is great, which is needed, but his voice is not terrific, at least not the way he uses it here.  And that is a good thing, because if he had a fine voice like the celebrity Usher, it wouldn’t fit his downtrodden character.

Remarkably, and somewhat in parallel with Jackson, this is McCaskill’s first professional engagement.  He is a junior at University of North Carolina Greensboro, and all of his stage credits are from there!

The other six actors program names are listed as Thought 1 through Thought 6.  They manifest Usher’s neverending introspection, and most of the thoughts that they disclose are self-chastising.  One of these psyches controls his pronounced sexual ambivalence, but he does seem to have genuine affection for “the little white girl inside me.”  In addition to being revelatory, The Thoughts are a total scream – flamboyant with wild gesticulations and great movement choreography.

The six sometimes play specific characters, most importantly, Usher’s parents, neither of whom have reconciled to his coming out several years before.  His father has no compunctions about his feelings about homosexuals.  More than once he asks if Usher is attracted to him since the son likes men.  It is not clear whether the father simply provokes the son or whether he shares some of the same orientation and possibly an inclination toward incest.  While his uber-religious mother (always played by men) shows affection it does not appear unconditional.  She invariably rails against his homosexuality and implores Usher to craft plays such as a gospel musical or something like Tyler Perry would do.

Among other notable characters that The Thoughts perform are a sextet of historical black persons; a handsome black man who comes on to Usher in the subway; and a chilling and abusive white man.  While we know that the black people appear in Usher’s imagination, who knows about the white man?

The production quality is top flight.  Its two greatest weaknesses concern repetitiveness.  Some points are made repeatedly, so that the script could be abbreviated a bit.  Also, while each song is pleasant and most are energetic, a certain propulsive sameness sets in.  Finally, it is interesting to note that in various iterations of “A Strange Loop,” different casting configurations have been used, including an early one with two white girls.  Another female in this version would be welcomed.

That said, the musical offers equal and rewarding measures of entertainment and insight.  And despite the frequent negativity and pushback that Usher faces, we somehow feel that he’s going to come out okay.  His playwright certainly did.

“A Strange Loop,” with book, music, and lyrics by Michael R. Jackson is produced by American Conservatory Theater in association with Center Theatre Group (of Los Angeles), and plays at Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA through May 12, 2024.