I can’t stop thinking about A STRANGE LOOP — the Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award-winning musical written by Michael R. Jackson  which has been mounted by SpeakEasy Stage and Front Porch Arts Collective in its New England premiere. That’s a lot of accolades. I’m baffled. The show was monotonous, assaultively sung, and left me wanting.

The show’s title and method references the conundrum of consciousness, wherein one’s contemplation of self leads to an infinite loop of abstraction from which there is no escape. That is a highly reductive but I think accurate summation of cognitive scientist/scholar Douglas Hofstadter’s theory of the same name. Michael R. Jackson who wrote the book, music, and lyrics borrows these metaphysical trappings, then traps his protagonist there. The show is told from the very specific point of view of an obese, Black, queer theater usher at The Lion King (Kai Clifton) caught inside his restless thoughts as he thinks about writing a musical about a fat, Black queer writer, who’s writing about a fat, Black queer writer.

Initially, I found the lyrics blunt and funny, roiling with inventive internal rhymes, befitting someone wrapped up in his own “extremely obnoxious thoughts.” These six thoughts are externalized and arranged onstage, grid-like, and impersonated by a funny, nimble ensemble who dance and sing and spar and torment Usher: Grant Evan, Davron S. Monroe, Aaron Michael Ray, De’Lon Grant, Zion Middleton, and the exceptionally versatile Jonathan Melo. It’s a demanding, complicated script lucidly directed by Maurice Emmanuel Parent, and exuberantly choreographed by Taavon Gamble.

True to his name, Usher leads us through a portal to an endless maze of self-reflection, while bouncing off his inner white girl about whom he’s pretty ambivalent, among other things. Usher’s thoughts revolve around his identity, his sexuality, his mother, anal sex, Tyler Perry, religion and more. These thoughts are propelled by self-loathing, fear, rage, doubt, and frustration at being unheard, unseen, unknown to himself and others–and longing to break out, break free, make a statement. Much of Usher’s angst is eye-opening and relatable. I got inside Usher’s head. I heard. I saw. I empathized as much as this cis hetero white woman of a certain age could, only occasionally struggling with some new sexual rhetoric.

But then… what? This long and whining road of self-loathing leads nowhere. Usher concludes — and I use the term loosely:


Does hijacking a cognitive scientist’s theory of consciousness as a device for endless venting make a play? Where’s the drama? It didn’t help that the vocals were screechy and pitchy, the tone strident, the score grating–winding itself up like a spinning top gone rogue.  I’m looking for evolution, not revolution. I don’t want a loop– even as one as cleverly written as this one. How about a spiral? Or better yet, a kaleidoscope of ever-blooming insights. At the very least, please, someone, get Usher a writing coach, a psychotherapist, a yogi to help him meditate, or a date with a philosopher. For me A STRANGE LOOP felt like circling a drain.

There’s still time to see A STRANGE LOOP until MAY 25 at the BCA Calderwood Pavilion. Please share your thoughts– but not too many.