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‘A Strange Loop’ at the Ahmanson is strangely loopy


From left: Jordan Barbour, J. Cameron Barnett, Malachi McCaskill, Tarra Conner Jones and Jamari Johnson Williams in "A Strange Loop" at Center Theatre Group's Ahmanson Theatre (Photo by Alessandra Mello).

Following its Tony Award-winning success on Broadway in 2022, and a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for writer Michael R. Jackson, the musical “A Strange Loop” is now gracing the Ahmanson stage through June 30.

 

The show is innovative in focusing on the inner perspective of Usher (a warm Malachi McCaskill), a young writer who is soft, Black and queer – his “Thoughts” literally brought to life on stage by six vibrant performers – with nakedly honest lyrics infused by resonant music.

From left: Avionce Hoyles, J. Cameron Barnett, Malachi McCaskill, Jamari Johnson Williams, Jordan Barbour and John-Andrew Morrison in "A Strange Loop" at Center Theatre Group's Ahmanson Theatre (Photo by Alessandra Mello).

But the overall structure of “A Strange Loop” is less satisfying, ending up circling back on itself as if enacting the title, its narrative energy dissipating rather than propelling the young man’s story to a vital conclusion.

 

One of Usher’s Thoughts early on recites an editor’s comments on the script about its structure, making a funny point about having to endure such condescending criticism of his writing. Unfortunately, it proves to be true.

From left: J. Cameron Barnett, Jordan Barbour, Avionce Hoyles, Malachi McCaskill, Tarra Conner Jones, John-Andrew Morrison and Jamari Johnson Williams in "A Strange Loop" at Center Theatre Group's Ahmanson Theatre (Photo by Alessandra Mello).

The first third of the 90-minute play is jaw-droppingly hilarious, especially through the Thoughts’ pointedly barbed, refreshingly sassy language, often directed at Usher himself. As we learn with the energizing opening number “Intermission Song,” he works as an usher at the “Lion King” musical on Broadway while writing his own musical.


Through his writing, Usher grapples with being simply who he is in this world – Black, gay and from a family confused by him, his parents frequently asking him during phone calls to be more like Tyler Perry. But Usher would rather be his “Inner White Girl,” whom he believes can be whatever and however she wants, unlike him.

From left: Malachi McCaskill and Jordan Barbour in "A Strange Loop" at Center Theatre Group's Ahmanson Theatre (Photo by Alessandra Mello).

Tyler Perry is actually referenced a lot in this play, as are Popeye’s fried chicken (pieces of which get strewn about the stage), Usher’s mom Nala (his entire family named after “Lion King” characters), homosexuality, and the Lord – all of which are deeply interconnected within the “strange loop” of Usher’s life.


A zany scene depicting Usher’s family (portrayed by the Thoughts) in madcap hysterics as he speaks to them by phone seems to be where the structure starts bending back in on itself. The extended moment is funny through the family’s caricatured portrayal, which also makes it uncomfortable – his father is drunk, his sister is pregnant possibly through rape and his mother opines about Popeyes, homosexuality and the Lord.

 

From there, we don’t know where the story is going. Usher in a later scene hooks up with an older man, possibly reminiscent of his father, for somewhat demeaning sex. Then he feels bad and resolves to establish boundaries.

From left: Avionce Hoyles, Jordan Barbour, J. Cameron Barnett, Tarra Conner Jones, John-Andrew Morrison and Jamari Johnson Williams in "A Strange Loop" at Center Theatre Group's Ahmanson Theatre (Photo by Alessandra Mello).

Later still, we see enacted the Tyler Perry-type gospel musical that he writes for his mother out of spite, but in which he doesn’t hold back his bitterness in how she is portrayed. The multilevel scene is at once shiny, bright and darkly satiric as the gospel choir sings about how AIDS is God’s punishment – and the audience is asked to clap along, which feels somewhat manipulative in making us complicit.

 

The play then questions its own ending in trying to figure out where to land, Usher ultimately realizing he is caught in his own “strange loop” of reality, as are we all. But is he? Are we? It’s intriguing to consider that we just keep spinning in our own thought circles, but not emotionally convincing.

 

In the end, the loopy structure of the play seems like a defense against the world – understandable given all Usher must contend against simply to exist, much less live his dream – but one that doesn’t allow room for growing past his past, or at least his mother.

From left: Tarra Conner Jones, Jordan Barbour, John-Andrew Morrison, Malachi McCaskill, Avionce Hoyles, J. Cameron Barnett and Jamari Johnson Williams in "A Strange Loop" at Center Theatre Group's Ahmanson Theatre (Photo by Alessandra Mello).

Even so, Jackson’s music is soulful and satisfying, orchestrated with guitars, drums, bass, reed and keys (conducted by Sean Kana). And the six Thoughts (Jordan Barbour, J. Cameron Barnett, Carlis Shane Clark, Avionce Hoyles, Tarra Conner Jones and John-Andrew Morrison) absolutely own their various physically and comically dynamic roles, deliciously choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly.

 

Lighting (designed by Jen Schriever) is also well conceived, enhancing the minimal set design (by Arnulfo Maldonado) and illuminating Usher’s internal spaces. Directed by Stephen Brackett, “A Strange Loop” is also well paced – despite its circling, solipsistic structure – making it a wild ride through one young man’s mind and heart.

 

“A Strange Loop” continues at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, through June 30, with performances Tuesday and Wednesday at 8:00 p.m., Thursday at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 1:00 p.m. Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (213) 628-2772 or visiting CenterTheatreGroup.org. Run time is 90 minutes, without intermission.

 

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