The term “strange loop” describes a system in which, despite upward or downward movement through a hierarchical structure, a moving object arrives back where it started. Think of M.C. Escher’s “Waterfall.” Or the chicken or the egg problem. Or the ouroboros. Each challenges our notions of causality: if every chicken comes from an egg and every egg from a chicken, the source of its existence is a paradox.
Consciousness is a strange loop, too. We experience an “I,” an integrated ego, but that ego is related to a series of neurological, chemical, and cellular activity that it cannot perceive. Does the “I” make a decision, or is the “I” expressing the decisions of lower-level biological functions? In his book Gödel, Escher, Bach, Douglas R. Hofstadter, the cognitive scientist responsible for the term “strange loop,” asks a simple but provocative question: “Is consciousness an epiphenomenon?”
Traditionally, this kind of stuff does not serve as source material for a Broadway musical. Usher (Jacquel Spivey), the musical theater geek at the center of Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop—who is himself writing a musical titled A Strange Loop—admits near the beginning of the first act, “I don’t totally get it either.” His inspiration, it turns out, is less academic: “It’s also the name of this Liz Phair song that I really love.” Still, Hofstadter’s “strange loop” is the central structural conceit for a narrative that remains in Usher’s consciousness. As we move through his mind, we are left to wonder whether or not he will change, whether or not we will arrive where we began. I was reminded of the original title of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, The Inside of His Head.
What does that head sound like? Well, Usher describes himself as a “young overweight-to-obese homosexual and/or gay and/or queer, cisgender male, able-bodied university-and-graduate-school educated, musical theater writing, Disney ushering, broke-ass middle-class politically homeless normie leftist black American descendant of slaves who thinks he’s probably a vers bottom.” This is a fairly decent résumé of his problem, a difficulty balancing a legion of identities, and his primary obstacle, a tendency to intellectualize at the cost of taking action. For Usher, analysis is an excuse to hesitate. In an early song, he yearns to release “his inner white girl,” because “white girls can do anything, can’t they?”
Despite what this description might suggest, A Strange Loop is primarily a comedy. Usher’s parents are his main obstacle: they want him to write a gospel play, like Tyler Perry. When he gets an offer to do just that, the fantasy sequence that follows, a satire on Perry’s “hateful antiblack stereotypes” and his disingenuous use of religion, is probably the highlight of the show. The scene that follows is an hysterical portrait of another kind of theatergoer: exiting The Lion King, she (L Morgan Lee) belts, “I like this and I like Wicked / I come up every year to see my shows / I’m from Miami Beach / You know, Florida / Like Dorothy, Blanche, S’phia, and Rose.”
I enjoyed A Strange Loop, and I especially appreciated the risks Jackson takes with form, not to mention with content—has there ever been a Broadway musical about an overweight-to-obese queer Black American? But I also wondered about the other relationships in Usher’s life. He is young, and no doubt his parents’ disappointment looms large. He doesn’t have a boyfriend, but does he have any friends? If not, how does he feel about that absence? Considering his obsession with family and lovers, I was surprised by Usher’s indifference to friendship. This, more than a reconciliation with his parents or even a healthy sexual relationship, is what will break his strange, solipsistic loop.
A Strange Loop is on sale through September 4th at the Lyceum Theatre. 149 W. 45th Street New York, NY. 1 hour 45 minutes. No intermission. Photograph by Marc J. Franklin.