A strange loop: a familiar pattern
Diverse forms and styles of Black theatre are being performed across London’s stages in 2023. The kind of ‘overnight success’ that belies years of financial struggle, innovation driven by necessity as much as creativity, a series of false dawns, and the tragedy of squandered talent. Success is revealing itself through storytelling that demands to be heard, and stories that need to be told. The pandemic that caused a near terminal hiatus in theatregoing, alongside the public reaffirmation of (and cynical backlash against) anti-racism as a more-than-minority concern, appears to have finally turned years of empty rhetoric into action among some cultural gatekeepers.
Black theatre performers, writers, producers – and crucially audiences – have begun to rebalance the fare on offer away from the fringe, onto West End stages. Sometimes, as is the case with Michael R Jackson’s, A Strange Loop, the musical delighting/challenging audiences at London’s Barbican Centre until 9 Sept 2023, this counterweight arrives pre-garlanded with Pulitzer Prize (2020), smash-hit Broadway debut (2022), and with Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical in tow.
Charting one man’s journey to selfhood, Jackson’s musical recounts the tale of Usher, a Black queer everyman writing a musical about a Black queer man writing a musical about a Black queer man. So far, so loopy. A Strange Loop does what great theatre can – connects its audience to the humanity of a protagonist, and through them, helps us to see our own humanity in a different light. Who even knew that an ‘everyman’ could ‘travel the world in a fat, Black, queer body’? Boundaries broken, this would be achievement enough for most. A Strange Loop may also have rescued musical theatre from its Disneyfication or descent into horror (how else would the Take That jukebox musical and Gary-Barlow-fest destined for London in 2024, be described?) – saving musical theatre for a whole new generation (’I should know I’m secretary of the Sondheim Society!’, as one of Usher’s thoughts declares).
With the book painstakingly crafted and closely scripted, through Usher, Jackson is able to present the dilemmas confronted when writing an avowedly Black queer play, thankfully rejecting the ‘not a Black queer play, merely a play about Black queer character…’ sidestep, that is so often used that it can feel like a slap in the face to those who share the identity downplayed, those seeking community and keen to see more diverse representation, so that they can see something of themselves.
Jackson’s device of embodying our hero’s competing thoughts as a (highly entertaining) chorus, allows Usher’s unreliable character to grapple with complexity in a manner many of us who operate within systems/structures that also oppress us, will recognise. Usher both rejects and embraces family, church, queerness, and identity as routes to and constraints upon freedom. In this way, he avoids the glib denial of the relevance of being in community, that is associated with conservative Black voices. Usher can recognise his need for intimacy without judgement, while running the gauntlet of judgement by using, ‘no fats, no femmes, no Blacks‘ dating apps to hook up. He resists stumbling into the Tyler Perry trap (as Usher defines it) of colluding with limiting stereotypes in order to commodify his identity, while seeking professional success by writing a play about his own identity.
In traversing Usher’s ‘strange loop’ of self-consciousness/conscious selfdom, we witness the attraction, delusion, and tragedy of fixity, the trauma revisited via ‘hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner’ compromise, and how abuse, racism and emotional violence is interwoven into Usher’s life in which
He has to fight for his right/ To live in a world that chews up/ And spits out/ Black queers on the daily.‘Intermission‘ A Strange Loop
Usher is pushed to the edge of sanity by his efforts not to despair in the face of these challenges. We discover, with Usher, that if he is willing to confront his demons, there is hope of a way through, instead of his hopes for a way over; a way that, in keeping with the play’s solo character, can only have one hero.
I then found myself concerned about what the largely white, straight Barbican theatre audience would make of it. There were times when the hearty applause, or guffaws of laughter from fellow (white) audience members felt inappropriate. Jackson’s intense writing rhythm means you are never far from a joke inserted to leaven the pain, and as my heart sank in recognition of shared pain, laughter at another humorous conceit, knowing reference, or clever word-play started to rile me. I am lucky to have the privilege of working with and for Black queer men. The pattern of acerbic, gallows humour, employed to avoid and obscure, represented an all too familiar loop. I have had the rarely afforded luxury of learning alongside my peers to own and celebrate difference without apology, asking for neither forgiveness nor permission. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to recognise my privilege, ignore the noises-off, and to reject the urge to avoid facing the difficult elements of Black queer life. I was challenged by this musical because it cut through even my struggle-weary cynicism, middle-aged seen-it-all-beforeism. My assumptions need to be challenged, my empathy muscles also require exercise. Often, even when Black queer experience is centred, the messages are designed for the benefit of those around us. So rare to feel directly addressed by a work, it is unsurprising that I was surprised.
Not everyone I have spoken to about the play reached the same conclusions. Some reported that emotions stirred by Jackson’s unflinching honesty (even when delivered via Usher’s flinching personality traits and avoidance tactics) left them feeling uncomfortable. Their discomfort compounded by feeling exposed and vulnerable, and at the same time, ‘clocked’ by a largely white audience. Jackson’s rapier swipes at the heart of anyone who has defied convention and risked social rejection to take steps towards life outside of the majoritarian social norms – evoking the fear of ‘hearing the people you loved say ‘I told you so’ ‘ – understandably left some with wigs well and truly snatched.
I received one report of a young Black queer man leaving at a midpoint in the play – not an easy task when there is no interval, and when the Barbican stalls have sliding doors at the end of each row to keep the audience in – but for them enough was enough!
did you see A Strange Loop? What do you think of it? I left halfway through. Went with my friend who was a straight Black woman, and it was the definition of awkward . . . I don’t like leaving plays because I respect all the work that goes into it. But watching with her was a bit much, especially with a pretty much all White audience!A Black queer audience member
‘The definition of awkward’, Queer theatre seeks to be transgressive and disruptive. It rarely succeeds with such precision or power. Despite widespread general agreement that increased visibility of minoritised groups is welcome, (that it makes ‘a business case’ to set diversity quotas, and then downgrade them to ‘targets’ on failing to fill them) it is only when applied to a particular group – in this case, Black queer men – that crucial, critical secondary questions are asked.
We say ‘representation matters,’ but we rarely ask: to whom? What kind of representation matters? Representation in front of which audiences matters? How does it matter?Hari Ziyad
These secondary, deeper questions about the risks of visibility for minoritised groups as potential exposure, as a political act, can be understood as a source of discomfort at – or rejection of, the hard-hitting content of the play. Encouraging us to face these issues is Jackson’s purpose here; with the theme of representation at the core of his concerns. Tempting as it might be to jeer, ‘snowflake’, or to reject these concerns about what others may think, as a hangover from Cosby-era, respectability politics. Instead, we might seek to understand how the vulnerability inherent in visibility is lived.
‘Artists are here to disturb the peace.’James Baldwin
Our vice, if there is one worth identifying here, appears to be magical thinking. Prey to the peril of ignoring Audre Lorde’s, oft-rehearsed, if rarely acted-upon advice that ‘the masters’ tools will never dismantle the master’s house’.
Visibility can deliver steps towards change, but, by itself, it is not enough. The currency of clicks, likes, and retweets cannot purchase love. Visibility, achieved through a greater number, depth, and variety of Black queer stories, could under certain conditions, free us from giving undue weight to what white audience members believe. It cannot do so automatically. It will not do so from a single stage, however prestigious.