‘Thoughts’ on A Strange Loop | Playbill

Special Features ‘Thoughts’ on A Strange Loop

The ensemble cast of Michael R. Jackson’s meta musical share their experiences in the new Broadway musical.

James Jackson, Jr., L Morgan Lee, John-Andrew Morrison, Jason Veasey, Antwayn Hopper, and John-Michael Lyles Heather Gershonowitz

Welcoming A Strange Loop to Broadway feels like a big deal, and not just because it’s already a Pulitzer-winning work. The musical, with a book, music, and lyrics by Michael R. Jackson, is fiercely original and daring in its insistence on telling the most specific of stories—Jackson has described his meta musical about Usher, a Black, gay theatre writer himself working on a self-referential musical, as “emotionally autobiographical.”

And for its cast, all of whom are Black and queer, that specificity is key to its appeal.

“On the other side of specificity is universality,” shares Jason Veasey. “That’s why people love Fiddler—I don’t know anything about that life, but I do know about family, love, and loss. The minute somebody says, ‘Oh, I don’t know that because I’m white,’ the next moment is something in the show that I promise you’ll connect with.”

Veasey plays one of the show’s six Thoughts, joined by L Morgan Lee, James Jackson, Jr., John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, and Antwayn Hopper, four of whom make their Broadway debuts with the production. The Thoughts inhabit Usher’s inner psyche, along with standing in as his family members, agent, strangers on a subway, and a myriad other presences.

“I remember two old, Jewish women stopped us after the first performance [at the 2019 world premiere Off-Broadway run at Playwrights Horizons] and they were like, ‘Oh my God. That’s my story.’ And we were like, ‘Oh, girl, no. It’s not.’ But they said, ‘No, that was my mother. That was my family.’ They relate to it,” recalls Jackson. “A family is a family. A career is a career.”

John-Michael Lyles, Jason Veasey, James Jackson, Jr., L Morgan Lee, John-Andrew Morrison, and Antwayn Hopper in A Strange Loop Marc J. Franklin

The musical offers this company a chance to tell the kind of story that doesn’t often get told on the Great White Way—Usher’s trials and tribulations include looking for love on Grindr, being expected by his family to write a Tyler Perry-style gospel play, and feeling out of step with the body-obsessed NYC gay community—but the Thoughts think that tradition is selling Broadway audiences short.

“Audiences are more down than we give them credit for,” says Lyles, “and I think that gatekeepers assume what the audience wants and decide for them what they’re ready for.”

The rarity of works like A Strange Loop sadly means that it is also a rare opportunity for its cast, something that resonates deeply with the entire company.

“It’s a beautiful thing with this show that Michael chose us and stuck with us,” says Hopper. “I can speak specifically to my career. I had been overlooked. I was an underdog. Michael was an underdog, and this piece was an underdog. It’s a testament to what faith can do, to what heart can do, and to what sticking to your guns can do.”

“When I first started auditioning in the city, casting directors would say terrible things to me, like, ‘Your handbag’s falling out of your mouth,’ or they say, ‘You’re not Black enough. You’re not thug enough. You’re too fat.’ And now I’m in a Broadway show where I get to be as queer, and as big, and as Black as I want to be,” adds Morrison.

A Strange Loop’s Broadway bow is the culmination of a long, hard development process, a journey that started as far back as 2008 for some of the Thoughts. But now? As the show reaches its largest stage yet, the little show that could feels home at last.

“You grow up with this fantasy of being on a Broadway stage, and you think it’ll be so overwhelming, and this and that,” says Lee. “But at the same time, because we’ve been doing this show for so many years, getting on stage at the Lyceum, was like, ‘Oh yes. I know this. This literally feels like home.’”

 
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