A Big, Black and Queer-Ass Broadway Show Is Closing, “A Strange Loop” Filled My Nerd Heart

“How many minutes ‘til the end of intermission?”

With those words, you’re thrust into the world of the musical A Strange Loop. Written by Michael R. Jackson, it’s about Usher (played by Jaquel Spivey), a fat, queer Black playwright writing a musical about a fat, queer Black playwright, writing a musical about…you get the point. The name comes from an actual scientific concept, but also a Liz Phair song. Because the whole show takes place in Usher’s head, the other actors play Thoughts 1-6, who act out not only his thoughts, but the people in his life, including his family (who he has named after characters from “The Lion King,” the show where he works as an usher.)

After winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2020, A Strange Loop opened on Broadway on April 26, 2022 after beginning previews on my birthday, April 14. This year, it won Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical at the Tony Awards, and they were so deserved. After reading about the show when it first opened, I knew I had to see it during our family trip to New York City this summer. (I was smart and bought tickets the week before the Tony’s because I knew once it won, they’d be impossible to get.) It was announced this week that the show would be closing in January 2023. It is incredibly rare for a show that won the biggest Tony of the night to close within the year after winning, but given the state of Broadway right now (I mean, “Phantom of the Opera” is closing in February after 36 YEARS) then I can’t say it’s a total surprise. Even “Fun Home”, which is the only other explicitly queer Best Musical winner in recent history, will have played more shows at closing. The people who have wanted to see A Strange Loop probably already have, and the people who need to see the show either don’t live in NYC or can’t afford a ticket.

As a Black, queer creative person who loves musical theatre, I have NEVER felt more seen by anything than I have by A Strange Loop. It really is a “big, Black and queer-ass American Broadway show,” and I’m heartbroken that it won’t get to play longer. It’s such an important piece of theatre, not just for Black creatives, but for any creative person who is reconciling with how the intersections of themselves can co-exist within their art.

I have been a musical theatre nerd for as long as I can remember. I come from a line of musical lovers — my grandmother and mother introduced me to musical movies when I was a preschooler, and I knew I wanted to be on Broadway after seeing Beauty and the Beast in third grade. I have never seen a show where the vast majority of characters are Black (no, Hamilton doesn’t count. Not only that, but where the story is rooted in Blackness. Being Black is inherent to Usher’s journey as an artist.

Growing up in a pre-Hamilton theatre world, I was told that my love for musicals was never going to be a viable path for me. I saw it firsthand — I graduated with a degree in theatre studies and spent a year auditioning and getting nowhere before giving up. When I was in my early 20s, I would have done anything for a show like A Strange Loop. Even though I no longer want to perform, seeing a show like this being produced and not only that, revered, I knew I needed to get into that room and see the show.

One of the things that struck me most about the show is Usher’s relationship to his Blackness and how he reconciles that with his “inner white girl” and his alleged feminist beliefs. In the song “Inner White Girl,” he sings about the ability white women have to move about the world however they want to without regard for other people’s perceptions of them or fear of repercussions. The song immediately struck a chord in me — I spent most of my childhood and adolescence being told I was (or wanted to be) a white girl because of what I liked.

There is a freedom he feels when he releases his inner white girl that I deeply understood. Neither Usher nor I want to be white; it’s more about the freedom that being white would afford us in a world that doesn’t want to acknowledge us because we’re Black. Being white allows you to do whatever you want to, and in that way, Blackness is oppressive. As a Black woman, I am not allowed the space to make mistakes or missteps. I only succeed if I’m exceptional. People (especially white people) praise me for being articulate, for being able to write in a manner that makes people think. It’s almost revelatory to them that I can do that. Usher clearly understands and so deftly articulates what that feels like.

Much of Usher’s struggle as the main character feels really similar to my own as a creative. How do you make sure you’re checking all of the boxes? Am I Black enough? Queer enough? Mainstream enough? Who will I offend with this work? Am I alienating white people? Oh god, what if my mother reads this? Will she freak out? Was I too honest? Not honest enough? How the fuck do I put together all these pieces of myself together authentically? You’re always going to disappoint someone, and sometimes you just have to decide who it’s going to be. If I’m being honest, that person is usually you  — it’s easier to shove that part of you down to keep others happy, especially if you want to be successful.

For much of my life I’ve struggled with the concept of feeling like I’m enough. I don’t even know what that means, but thanks to social media discourse, I’m afraid of pissing someone off — of them calling me out because of my perception of Blackness, of queerness, of how I move through the world. There’s an invisible line I’m trying to stay behind to keep myself and my work as safe from criticism as I can. It’s like I want to piss people off, get them talking, but not too much. Because then they can turn on me. So I feel like I’m balancing the delicate tightrope with everything I write.

Usher’s white agent (played by one of The Thoughts, there are no white actors in the show) informs him that because Tyler Perry is too busy building his empire of mediocrity (my words, not his) they need ghostwriters for his plays. Usher’s mother has been begging him to use the MFA his parents paid for to write her a gospel play a la Perry, so this could be the perfect opportunity to shut her up and get her off his back. But to Usher, writing for Perry is the ultimate form of selling out because he is so vehemently opposed to everything Perry stands for.

During my brief stint as an actor, my dad suggested looking into Tyler Perry studios. Thankfully, I gave him such an earful about Perry’s misogynistic and tacky movies that when I became a writer he didn’t dare suggest it again. But the chokehold he has on the Black Boomer community is REAL, and I think Jackson portrays it so perfectly in A Strange Loop.

Later in the musical, we do get to see a gospel play, but it is definitely not the one Usher was writing for Tyler Perry. After a very intense argument with his parents about their lack of support for his art, or their understanding of his queerness, Usher confronts his mother, gospel style. In the song “Precious Little Dream,” he throws back in her face all the ways she’s hurt him, but he’s also forcing her to look at herself through his eyes. The whole song comes from a place of hurt.

It’s hard to listen to your mother talk about how much she loves you but at the same time puts you down for being queer. Usher’s incredibly religious mother repeatedly reminds him that being gay is a sin, and his family is obsessed with him getting AIDS like his dead cousin Darnell. She says the quiet parts out loud: “why couldn’t you bring me home a daughter-in-law and grandbabies?” “Why couldn’t you have been the daughter I always wanted?”

My parents aren’t religious at all and overall very accepting of my queerness. Unlike Usher’s dad, who asks his son if he’s ever been attracted to him because they’re both men, my dad has embraced my queerness in a way I couldn’t have imagined. My mother has been supportive, but is still reserved, especially when it comes to my relationship. She likes my fiancée, but hasn’t gone out of her way to be as enthusiastic about us getting married as I imagine she would be if I had married my son’s father.

During the confrontation, my eyes absolutely got teary seeing Usher tell his mother all of his feelings. I wish I had the kind of strength it takes to confront my mom on what her hangups are about my queerness. I wish I could write a gospel play to show her how her bullshit makes me feel like her acceptance is conditional. Will I? Doubtful, but that’s what therapy is for.

I think by the end of the show, Usher has figured out that there is a way to balance telling your truth and all of the other shit you need to consider when you’re a Black creative. Your perception of your reality isn’t going to be for everyone, and that’s what makes it special. Who cares if your parents are mad? They’ll either get over it, or they won’t. Having one person feel seen by the work is really what it’s about.

I hope Usher knows that he made an impact.


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Sa'iyda Shabazz

Sa'iyda is a writer and mom who lives in LA with her partner, son and 3 adorable, albeit very extra animals. She has yet to meet a chocolate chip cookie she doesn't like, spends her free time (lol) reading as many queer romances as she can, and has spent the better part of her life obsessed with late 90s pop culture.

Sa'iyda has written 21 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. It is such a good musical and I hope the do a pro shot of it so that others can see it. I saw it off-broadway and hoped it would get to broadway, but anticipated that most Americans were not ready for it. I read that it is the Tony best musical award winner that has had the quickest closing, which is really tragic.

  2. I love this! This is the first I’ve heard of the musical (which seems telling and also tragic tbh). I can’t wait to listen. I’m glad it’s out there for queer Black folk and other qtPOC :’)

    I’ve also struggled a lot with feeling like not enough, period. but also not feeling Cuban enough/nor the ‘right’ kind of a white (i know, tiny violin, but still). conditional acceptance from my transphobic mother, constantly trying to thread the needle of staying true to my radical beliefs but also trying to reach ppl outside of those ….. ugh. this musical hits a lot of similar notes. and I heckin’ love the concept of having actual people play the role of Thoughts, because that’s what it feels like in my anxiety brain!!

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