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'A STRANGE LOOP' INVADES MY HEAD
The resplendent and stunningly thought provoking new musical A Strange Loop opened on Broadway Tuesday night, incinerating gloriously, in the process, the grand, hollow edifice that we (myself included) once quaintly called "Black Broadway."
Let me explain.
As I wrote in EVER AFTER: Forty Years of Musical Theater and Beyond (my recently-published tome):"In fact, the brightest beam on musical theater’s horizon is the exuberantly talented, thirty-eight-year-old playwright-lyricist-composer Michael R. Jackson, a 2017 Larson Grant Winner, out of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Jackson’s fever dream of a musical, A Strange Loop, about a black, gay, playwright-lyricist-composer’s struggles to 'conjure up a big, black and queer-ass American Broadway,' premiered at Playwrights Horizons in the summer of 2019 for a very brief run. One year later, in the throes of lockdown, it was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, making Jackson the first black musical theater writer to win the award. His future is now ours."
Honestly, I wanted to say a great deal more but the deadline for the final manuscript actually had passed by the time A Strange Loop approached its Pulitzer and I had to scramble. Now, after savoring the show in its blessed new Broadway production, I’ve got my shot to really write about it.
My own love of (yes) “Black Broadway” — the musicals of Sissle & Blake, Razaf & Waller, James P. Johnson and Cecil Mack, Williams & Walker, Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson, Duke Ellington and…well, sadly, only a few others — has always been, inescapably, external; an outsider’s exploration. What Michael R. Jackson has done with A Strange Loop is to take me (and his vast new audience) inside the mind (and heart) of a young African American musical theater writer burdened with all of this history and enter into his struggle to go beyond it and simply express what he truly feels; to sing out his own truth through his protagonist, “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,” named Usher (sublimely performed by 23-year-old Jaquel Spivey, here making his Broadway and professional debut, for God’s sake.)
Usher’s truth resides with his sexuality ("queer") as much as his race ("black"). Both are explored searingly in A Strange Loop but the bottom line, for me, remains that enormous little word: Truth.
I fell in love with “Black Music” from the very young moment when I first realized that the truth behind the music of George Gershwin (whom I had also just recently discovered, and still adore) was a universe of African American influence — a vast ecosystem of music from which Gershwin had drawn inspiration and, yes, more than a few blue notes.
I dove right in. I wanted to hear it all and learn all I could about this music and, especially, about its neglected creators, nearly all relegated to obscurity solely by the pigment of their skin.
Almost immediately I, of course, came bang up against "Minstrelsy" — the repellent racist co-optation by 19th Century White America of African-American musical performance through garish, demeaning mimicry. Minstrelsy, it became clear, was this nation's seminal musical and theatrical institution. Everything, from the American Popular Songbook, through Vaudeville, to the Broadway Musical itself, descends from, and, to some extent, has never escaped from Minstrelsy's blackface trappings.
I eventually wrote about this at some length in Black and Blue, my biography of the 20th Century's greatest African American lyricist, Andy Razaf — who knew about Minstrelsy far more viscerally than I. Razaf wrote the first (and still, largely, the only) retort in the annals of “Black Broadway” to Minstrelsy and racism — his song, “Black and Blue,” composed with the great Thomas “Fats” Waller for the musical Hot Chocolates in 1929. (Extraordinarily, Razaf, in “Black and Blue,” and Michael R. Jackson, in A Strange Loop, both also confront the issue of colorism within the African-American community. An amazing conjunction of outrage, 93 years apart.)
Of particular interest to me, obviously, was the torturous history of African-American musical theater. After the Civil War, a new generation of African American songwriters and stage artists strove to move beyond Minstrelsy and, in doing so, to break the musical theater color barrier on Broadway. The incomparable comedian Bert Williams and his partner George Walker — the greatest Black entertainment team of their age, who sometimes composed their own material —were part of this movement, as was Will Marion Cook, a marvelous, conservatory-trained composer. The dominant force, however, was Bob Cole, a son of former slaves, regarded as the "most versatile theatrical man" in the entirety of Black entertainment. Cole created the first musical comedy to be written and produced by an African American, the abhorrently named, A Trip To Coontown (you gotta do, what you gotta do, but it really must have hurt); the first musical, as well, to be written with a cast of characters, continuity and a genuine plot that depicted its Black characters not as shiftless, sunny savages but as human beings capable of thought and even emotion — two revolutionary evolutions. Cole eventually moved on to work with J. Rosamond Johnson, a brilliant, classically-educated musician and singer. With Johnson, Cole wrote more than a dozen shows, often collaborating on the lyrics in an unusual songwriting troika with Johnson's equally brilliant younger brother, poet and activist/writer, James Weldon Johnson. Incredibly, Cole, the Johnsons, Williams & Walker, and Cook all managed to bring a number of their shows to Broadway.
George Gershwin knew the music that these men made (and, in fact, knew some of them personally, including the brothers Johnson). More profoundly, he knew the music that the next generation of African American musical theater creators wrote for Broadway because they were his peers, beginning with the composer Eubie Blake and his lyricist partner Nobel Sissle, whose 1921 musical Shuffle Along, detonated Broadway as I hope A Strange Loop now will. Where Shuffle Along tailored its expression of Black culture for White consumption, however, A Strange Loop tailors nothing for nobody. Where Shuffle Along's frantic pace, jazzy, syncopated melodies and sassy dancing chorus girls, ushered in the "Roaring Twenties" theatrically on Broadway — a Broadway age that, in its incorporation of Black dance, Black music and Black performance style, provided the American musical theater with just about all of its defining 20th Century conventions — A Strange Loop burns through all of those conventions on its way to a 21st Century catharsis of awareness for its composer/protagonist that can be summed up in two excruciating words: Self Loathing.
Musical theater is an art form of transcendence — to sing about self-loathing is also to triumph over it. In its avowed circularity and defiant refusal to resolve, A Strange Loop manages on its own terms to musically transcend. I leave it to you to go and see how.
What I found myself consumed with, as I watched A Strange Loop, was the excruciating, recurring, realization of how tragically (and masterfully), the great African American creators of 20th Century “Black Broadway” masked their innermost truth in order to break through the White power structure of Broadway. Monumental talent in the name of entertainment was their sole mode of personal expression. Some, I know, were queer, too, and hid it. Some hid it so well that we may never know. Most bitterly resented how and what they were often forced to sing and dance, in all of its clanging “Minstrel” effrontery. It must have been sheer, self-lacerating, hell. In its own exploration of self-loathing, A Strange Loop nails that hell indelibly.
I’m not sure at what point it hit me that A Strange Loop is actually shaped as a minstrel show. I’d like to believe Mr. Jackson intended it to be ( I’d love to ask him). Minstrel shows were rigidly, almost ritualistically, structured. They unfolded in three parts, with an initial stage alignment that was its own strange loop: the entire company, clownishly outfitted and in blackface, seated in a perfect semi-circle around an “Interlocutor,” the show’s master of ceremonies. A Strange Loop opens with Usher centerstage as our Interlocutor, surrounded by his “Thoughts,” six fiercely outrageous and expressive performers (they are all show-stoppers), who dance and sing and shimmy and shake, as they confront Usher with his deepest truths. “The Thoughts” even don minstrel gloves during one grotesque sex scene and dance “a sexy minstrel dance around the aggressive foreplay which abruptly leads to the sex act,” according to Mr. Jackson’s stage direction (yes, I peeked at the script.) “The Thoughts” may not be seated, but they sure looked like the silhouette of a minstrel show to me.
This opening — called the “Fantasia” — next gave way in Minstrelsy to the “Olio,” a second act variety show — which A Strange Loop, in its own fashion, also enacts. (Minstrelsy’s “Olio” actually evolved historically into what came to be be known as Vaudeville.)
The third and final part of a minstrel show was “The Burlesque,” wherein highlights from the first two parts were reprised and broadly satirized. A Strange Loop culminates with a feverish, over-the top burlesque of Usher’s worst nightmare: a Tyler Perry family melodrama gone wild in Usher’s mind. It is, by definition (and inclination) the damndest imaginable Burlesque you have ever seen.
I could go on, but you really have to go and experience it. A Strange Loop is one hell of an achievement. As a reclamation and deconstruction of Minstrelsy, it is marvelous. As an avowal of sexual desire and truth, it is incendiary. As the end of “Black Broadway” as we have narrowly known it, A Strange Loop makes one flaming, fabulous bonfire.