A Strange Loop – Barbican: dancing the steps of the genres it satirises

Kyle Ramar Freeman (Usher)

Kyle Ramar Freeman (Usher) Photograph: Marc Brenner

The Barbican has done it again! This savvy receiving house dominates the summer theatre landscape yearly. Cole Porter’s Anything Goes (2022) provided us with the balm we needed for a Covid battered soul. But enough looking backward. A Strange Loop, the award-collecting unstoppable monsoon of intersectionality spins over from Broadway, ploughing ahead at great speed.

Beginning in 2006 as a solo show, Michael R. Jackson (playwright, Composer, and Lyricist) has built the momentum to fever-pitch proportions. One hundred minutes of show, snatching a Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award for best musical AND best book, with 11 nominations all in all. Boasting producers such as Billy Porter, Mindy Kaling, Alan Cumming, and Jennifer Hudson to name a few. This is a star-studded; gold-painted musical that was all anyone could talk about last year in the US. Now the Barbican has snagged it for us Brits. Aren’t they good?!

Based on Douglas Hofstadter’s psychological concept of cyclical structures that goes through several levels in a hierarchical system (thank you Wikipedia). We have a black queer plus-size writer working as an usher (and so-called) writing a musical about a black queer plus-size writer writing a musical about.. do you see the loop yet? If you don’t re-read the last sentence until it clicks.

Abrasively self-aware yet dancing the steps of the musical/genres it satirises throughout. Usher (played with vocal umph by Kyle Ramar Freeman) is plagued by his intrusive thoughts, six of them, waiting in the doorways of Arnulfo Maldonado’s columned (yet flexible) folding set, ready to intrude. Self-doubt, internalised racism, shame, and various family members are created by the first-rate cast. As comfortable with embodying a person as they are with a concept.

Beguilingly simple really. A brilliant lead (Ramer Freeman), and a chorus able to transmogrify (Sharlene Hector, Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea, Yeukayi Ushe, Tendai Humphrey Sitima, Danny Bailey, Eddie Elliott), dab on some of Jen Schriever’s rainbow sparkles and spots, and there you have it. All you need to sweep the award ceremonies and win a Pulitzer. If only it were that easy.

But it how Stephen Brackett’s direction melds what’s said, what’s covered, what’s sung about, what’s brought kicking and screaming into the light of day that’s so special. Not only is it a story of one man’s battle with identity and his dreams of theatre land, but it’s also a tale of blackness, queerness, belonging, religion, class, and resilience.

We jump from songs chirpily tongue in cheek, “Inner white girl” (who of course can do no wrong) to a serious scene showing the sexual power play between older/younger richer/poorer black/white men. The commentary on having a religious family, that is simultaneously loving, and supportive, but also bigoted and problematic is so difficult to wrap your head around. Thrown in the mix are gospel choirs, songs about AIDS, hookup culture, and a whole lot of sequins.

The bravery of R. Jackson to delve so deep, to combine such complex facets of identity, and yet make it fun, fabulous, and unsanctimonious is unmatched. Revolutionizing the genre like Hamilton did a few years ago. Uplifting overall yet at the same time, cynical, realistic, and wreathed in the inherited shame of a patriarchal racist society. It carries the complexity of good and bad, happy and sad, which is rare for a genre dedicated to extremes of theme and emotion.

It’s a lot in short, pulling no punches in a ride that is important for all to see, although might cause a heart attack for those easily shocked. But shouldn’t we be shocked sometimes? Summer in this city can’t just be endless Aperol spritz’s and body dysmorphia, can it? This show will pry your eyes open and leave you breathless. Despite its specific themes, it reminds us all of the strange layering of contradictions that make each of us human. Camp and clever, because why must we choose between the two? Unapologetically messy, a bit like life.

A Strange Loop
Barbican Theatre
Until Saturday 9 September 2023