Some say "write from exploration,"
Some say "just write what you know"
But either way, you keep careening
So it's hard to find the meaning
In your big, Black, and queer-ass American Broadway show
A Strange Loop is a 2020 musical play by Michael R. Jackson.
The protagonist is Usher, a gay Black man who works as, wait for it, an usher for the Broadway production of The Lion King. (In theory at least, the entire play takes place during an intermission of The Lion King). Usher is writing a play called A Strange Loop, which is about...a gay Black man named Usher, who works as an usher for The Lion King, and is writing a play called A Strange Loop, which is about a gay Black man named Usher...
The play is about Usher's struggle to make it in musical theater and finish writing his show. He also has to deal with the problems of being a Black man working in a white world (musical theater), a gay Black man who can't stop himself from having degrading fetish sex with white men, and, most problematic, a gay Black man with a very traditional family that includes parents that love Tyler Perry and strongly disapprove of their son's homosexuality. The cast consists of Usher and six "Thoughts", who play many characters, including his parents, his agent, the white guy who invites Usher home for some demeaning sex, and a character referred to in the stage directions as "Usher's self-loathing."
Following its initial run at Playwrights Horizons in 2019, A Strange Loop won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, making it the first musical written by a Black person to win the award, and the first to do so without first appearing on Broadway. It transferred to Broadway to critical acclaim in 2022 and was nominated for eleven Tony Awards, winning two: Best Book of a Musical, and Best Musical.
- All Gays Love Theater: Usher is a gay man whose passion is writing musical theater. When he describes his musical idea to his father, which is about writing a musical, his father says it's the gayest thing he's ever heard.
- Author Avatar: Usher is basically a fictionalized version of Michael R. Jackson, a gay Black man with two advanced arts degrees who works in musical theater. They even both share names with famous pop stars.
- Black Comedy: Used at points throughout the show, particularly in "AIDS Is God's Punishment," an upbeat gospel number satirizing homophobic religious rhetoric about HIV/AIDS.
- BSoD Song: "Boundaries," which comes after a traumatic sexual experience Usher has.
- Calling the Old Man Out: The climax of the play has Usher call out his parents' homophobia, venting about how he already suffers enough without them making him feel worse about himself. While he mostly just screams at his father, he creates an entire musical number calling out his mother by drawing attention to her religious fundamentalism and blind love for Tyler Perry.
- Category Traitor:
- Usher's mom disapproves of his taste in "white girl music" like Liz Phair, and is shocked at his dislike for Tyler Perry. Usher even has a whole dream sequence in which various Black historical figures call him out for not being Black enough while singing the praises of Tyler Perry.
- User also gets blocked by nearly everyone on Grinder because he calls Beyoncé a "pop culture terrorist."
- Country Matters: Usher's mom (played by Thought 2) complains about how Usher's brother's baby mama spray painted "See You Next Tuesday" on Mom's car. When clueless Dad says "See you next Tuesday?!", Mom explains "Cunt!". Dad later refers to the incident in "Didn't Want Nothin' Reprise" when the members of their church find Usher's music:Dad: It's out there online/Out front/Just like/Somebody spray-painted "Cunt."
- Daydream Surprise: Played for Drama. Usher has a honest conversation with an attractive, theater-loving man on the train and proposes to take him to bed. As they're about to get off, Usher asks if the man lives in Queens. He says that he doesn't — he lives in Usher's imagination. Usher was just fantasizing about the kind of man he wants to love, but can never achieve due to his own insecurity and the stigmas of the gay community.
- Despair Event Horizon: The low point of Usher's journey is having sex with a white man who shouted racial obscenities during sex, drawing attention to Usher's doubt about his sexuality and his racial identity.
- Driven to Suicide: "Memory Song" is partially about "all those gay Black boys [Usher] knew who chose to go on back to the Lord."
- Droste Image: The poster and cover for the script shows a Black man whose body consists of theater curtains looking down, parting the curtains, and revealing inside the exact same image, of himself, parting the curtains and revealing the image again and again to infinity.
- The Eleven O'Clock Number: "Memory Song," the penultimate song of the show, in which Usher solemnly remembers growing up in his hometown and facing homophobia and attempts to overcome it.
- Fan Disservice: Usher has a fairly graphic onstage sex scene with a fairly attractive whitenote man, but rather than being arousing, it quickly turns traumatic as the man shouts horrific insults and slurs at Usher during penetration.
- Fate Worse than Death: According to the preacher character Usher assumes in "AIDS Is God's Punishment," "the only thing worse than dying of AIDS would be living with it and hearing the people you loved say, 'I told you so.'"
- "Gaining Confidence" Song: "A Strange Loop" is a muted version of this, as Usher comes to the conclusion that maybe he'll never figure out how to change his life, but can still work to find comfort in himself.
- Gayngst: A major theme of the show is Usher's identity as not just a gay man, but a fat, Black, gay man. His Christian parents refuse to accept his sexuality and constantly hold the threat of AIDS over his head, as a close gay friend of the family had previously died of the disease; Usher eventually writes a gospel mocking their homophobia. Usher also doesn't have much of a sex life as others in the gay community reject him for being Black and fat, and he feels ashamed that he's drawn to skinny white gay guys when deep down he'd rather love another Black man. His low point is having sex with a married white man who degrades him and calls him racial slurs during sex.
- Greek Chorus: Thoughts 1-6, who comment on the action, mercilessly mock Usher, and play a variety of characters, like Usher's family or his agent.
- Gone Horribly Right: Usher's family and agent both pester him to write a gospel play throughout the show. When he finally does, the result is "AIDS Is God's Punishment." Usher's mother has to beg him to stop the song before he tells her that this is the only way he could write honestly about his relationship to the church.
- Gosh Darn It to Heck!: Jackson’s very profane lyrics only tone themselves down when they're coming from the mouths of Usher’s equally-religious parents — for instance, "Shitty Bank Student Loans" in "Today" becomes "Doodoo Bank Student Loans" when Usher's mom mentions them in "Precious Little Dream." With few exceptions, neither the Thoughts nor Usher use any profanities if his parents are involved in a scene.
- "I Am" Song: "Today," which details Usher's day-to-day life and formally introduces and characterizes the Thoughts.
- "I Want" Song: "Inner White Girl", where Usher expresses how he feels trapped by the expectations of Black men and wishes he could be viewed with the expectations of white women, so he would be free to express his feminine side and not have to deal with the racism he constantly faces.
- Job Song: "Today":Usher: I am a Disney usher/I'm barely scraping by/My discontentment comes in many shapes and sizes.
- Large Ham: Usher dips into this in a few songs, most notably "Writing a Gospel Play" (in which he plays every character in an intentionally-terrible, Tyler Perry-style gospel play), and "AIDS Is God's Punishment," where he plays the pastor.
- Lyrical Dissonance: Frequently invoked to sugarcoat the show's tougher themes. "AIDS is God's Punishment" is the biggest example — since Usher's mother wanted Usher to write a gospel play so bad, he writes a song brutally detailing the stigma the church holds against gay Black men, particularly when it comes to those with HIV/AIDS. This culminates in the gospel choir cheerfully singing the title lyric, even imploring the audience to clap along (ideally, the audience will be too uncomfortable to do so).
- Meaningful Name: The agent who pushes the gospel play assignment onto Usher in "Tyler Perry Writes Real Life" is named Agent Fairweather, and he's only involved in Usher's life when money is involved.
- Medium Awareness: Usher and the Thoughts are aware that they are in a play called A Strange Loop. Near the end, Thought 4 urges Usher to make a decision about his life and wrap things up, because the white people in the audience want to go home.
- Modern Minstrelsy: Discussed and parodied. Usher strongly dislikes Tyler Perry's plays for pandering to the lowest common denominator with exaggerated caricatures of Black families. "Writing a Gospel Play" parodies this as Usher writes and acts out one of these shows, and the Large Ham comedy proves a strong contrast to Usher's more introspective, brutally honest work.
- Money, Dear Boy: In-Universe. His agent pushes Usher to ghost-write a Tyler Perry "gospel play," but Usher hates Tyler Perry and all his works, which he views as "simpleminded, hack buffoonery." Finally, Usher caves and says he'll do it, "but only for the money."
- Most Writers Are Writers: Usher is a writer who is struggling to write his play. Lampshaded in the opening number where Thoughts 5 and 6 sing that "No one cares about a writer/Who is struggling to write!"
- The Musical: An aspiring playwright, attempting to write a musical, with a chorus of his own thoughts telling him how much he sucks.
- N-Word Privileges: Thought 2, criticizing Usher's story, says "You can't say 'N' in a musical," because "white people are watching." Usher's Black "ancestors" also call him the 'N' word to draw attention to how out-of-place he feels among other Black people.
- No Ending: Discussed, but subverted. Usher originally plans for A Strange Loop to end with his back to the audience, but the Thoughts don't really like the idea. Near the end of the show, Usher worries about how little has actually been resolved for his character at the end of the play, because that means his own issues can't be so easily wrapped up eithe. However, he sings "A Strange Loop" to get a sense of closure, even if that closure entails accepting the uncertainty that lies ahead.
- Parental Love Song: Played with. "Periodically" begins as Usher's mom making a phone call to wish him a happy birthday, but as the song progresses, it turns into her ranting in a misguided but still very hurtful manner over her confusion and fear about Usher's "reprobate lifestyle" as a gay man.
- Pep-Talk Song: “A Sympathetic Ear” is sung by an elderly patron of The Lion King, who consoles Usher after “Writing a Gospel Play” and tells him that “if you're not scared to write the truth, then it's probably not worth writing. And if you're not scared of living the truth, then it's probably not worth living.”
- Reading Ahead in the Script: At one point the Thoughts, who are very skeptical of Usher's writing choices, are thumbing through the script of A Strange Loop. Thought 3 gets to the end, where Usher turns his back to the audience, and asks, "That's seriously how the show ends?"Usher: Possibly. In this draft at least.
Thought 3: Hmm. Well, that's certainly a choice.
- Recursive Reality: The show consists of Usher trying to figure out how to write his play, A Strange Loop, while his Thoughts comment on the action.
- Religion Rant Song: "AIDS Is God's Punishment" is Usher's version of a gospel play, which is to say it's about the homophobia and shame he experienced as a member of the church in his youth.
- Shout-Out: Usher talks how much he likes Liz Phair and how the name of the play is partially inspired by her song "Strange Loop". He says Phair wouldn't grant permission to use her music but "her spirit lives on in the piece in other ways." A whole scene is called "Exile in Gayville," from Phair's iconic album Exile in Guyville.
- Show Within a Show: "Writing a Gospel Play" shows Usher playing every part in a scene from the gospel play he's reluctantly ghostwriting for Tyler Perry, "Show Me How to Pray: A Spiritual, Urban Drama." His contempt for this assignment is clear.
- Snicket Warning Label: Played with, as, following the usual pre-show announcement to turn off your cell phones, Usher's speech before "Intermission Song" includes this:Usher: There will be Black shit! And white shit! With code-switching and butt-fucking! There will be butt-fucking!
- Stylistic Suck: The play that Usher writes in the "Writing A Gospel Play" number, which is Usher acting out a scene chock-filled with tropes seen in Tyler Perry plays, doing over-the-top accents, and the moral of the play being "Maybe you don't know how to pray!"
- Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion: The Thoughts tell Usher that white theater critics aren't going to like his show, and sing, "Watch them write you off as lazy/Not to mention navel-gazey/Lacking both in craft and rigor/'Cause you're just a fucking nig—", and then the song goes back to the chorus with "Big, Black and queer-ass American Broadway show!"
- Take That!:
- A quite long section of the show is dedicated to how much Tyler Perry sucks. His agent strongarms him into ghostwriting a Tyler Perry show. Usher's "ancestors" then sing a whole song about how Tyler Perry is the best and writes about "real life." This is followed by a Show Within a Show scene from Usher's ghostwritten Tyler Perry play, which is deeply stupid. What makes this all especially funny is that the real Tyler Perry is a fan of the show. Michael R. Jackson shared a handful of congratulatory text messages from Perry on Instagram after A Strange Loop won the Pulitzer, and again after it announced its Broadway transfer.
- "Didn't Want Nothin'" also takes a pointed shot at notorious (and, by the time the show opened on Broadway, disgraced) mega-producer Scott Rudin, with the Thoughts, currently portraying Usher’s father, singing that "even his balls are pure gold."
- Usher retorts, "I'm POOR" at the question on whether he has seen Hamilton. This is likely a dig at the fact that Hamilton has high ticket prices that generally isn't accessible to an audience like him, and likewise, he might be annoyed of its hyperprevalence in the theatre conversation. (Like the above case with Tyler Perry, Lin-Manuel Miranda is a supporter of A Strange Loop.)
- Take That, Audience!: Usher and his Thoughts occasionally worry about the show alienating mainstream audiences, with the understanding that those demographics are likely watching the show. After Usher mentions that Black pain is a lucrative way to get people to see a show, he gives an Aside Glance to the audience.
- Title Drop: The name of the show is mentioned several times, and the final number is also the title song. In one scene, Usher explains the title to Thought 5, saying that it comes from the book by Douglas Hofstadter where Hofstadter describes the sense of self or "I" as an illusion produced by repeated stimuli in the brain, and calls it "a strange loop."
- Triumphant Reprise: Played with and downplayed in the case of “A Strange Loop.” It’s a reprise of “Today,” and it represents the culmination of Usher’s emotional journey in the show, but its message and instrumentation are much more reserved than its first iteration.
- Villain Song: Zig-zagged. Even though he never appears, the closest person the show has to a villain is probably Tyler Perry, who represents everything Usher stands against as an artist. Musically, "Tyler Perry Writes Real Life" certainly sounds like a villain song, with the spirits of various famous Black historical figures condemning Usher for badmouthing Perry. However, see What the Hell, Hero? below.
- There's also "Inwood Daddy", which depicts Usher's demoralizing sexual encounter with a white man who calls him racial slurs.
- What the Hell, Hero?: In "Tyler Perry Writes Real Life," after Usher turns down his agent's offer to have him write a gospel play for Tyler Perry, he's suddenly visited by the visions of Black icons like Whitney Houston and James Baldwin, who call him a "race traitor" for his actions.
- The Whitest Black Guy: Zig-zagged. Usher's racial identity is quite complicated, as he feels ostracized for not having the same cultural tastes as his Black family and peers (i.e. being into theater, enjoying "white girl" music, and not liking Tyler Perry), but is heavily affected by his experience as a Black man and wants to embrace it as much as he can, despite his internalized prejudice and self-loathing.
- Write What You Know: In-Universe and in fact spoken word for word, as Thoughts 4-6, representing Usher trying to figure out what the story should be, sing "Some say write from exploration/Some say just write what you know."