Why ‘A Strange Loop’ means so much to me

Illustration by Michele Hicks

Kofi Mframa, Opinions Editor

I sat in the center of the mezzanine, overlooking the stage at the Lyceum Theater. It was my second Broadway show in a year and I had no idea what to expect — my heart was beating with anticipation.

What I didn’t expect was to look down upon a stage that appeared more as a mirror into my own life — recounting an intimate and painful experience I know all too well.

The Pulitzer-winning musical, “A Strange Loop” is as meta as it is radical. It follows an usher named Usher, played by Jaquel Spivey, as he struggles to write his “big Black and queer-ass American Broadway show,” as he calls it in the musical. He battles his intrusive thoughts, manifested into six different characters, and navigates life as a fat, Black and queer man in a world that was never made for him.

The beauty of “A Strange Loop” is its honesty, and though it may have closed on January 15, it lives in me forever. In the past, when I did this much self-reflection I always felt dissatisfied, like I couldn’t find the answers I was looking for. Usher doesn’t even get an answer or solution to his problems at the end of the musical.

The show is raw and unflinching. It’s not afraid to ask the hard questions in search of better answers while tapping into taboos. As a queer, Black man, seeing this vulnerable yet audacious interrogation of identity was awe-inspiring.

As someone who exists in the margins of society, I’ve never engaged with media that dealt with my unique experience with the intersectionality of sexuality and race. So much of the media surrounding LGBTQ+ people tends to homogenize us. But with “A Strange Loop,” the specificity of Usher’s character made me feel like I was watching my own life play out right in front of me.

Like Usher, I watched as my family made homophobic remarks in passing, biting my tongue as to not ruffle any feathers. In the show, Usher’s mom sings, “Man is for woman, and woman for man. The rest is confusion and not in God’s plan.” This is a sentiment I’ve heard my entire life. Watching it happen on stage was like reliving it.

So much of the show gave me the opportunity to look at my past and present with a different lens.

My family knew about my sexuality early on but refused to acknowledge it. Instead, they tiptoed around it, guilting me for the sacrifices they made on my behalf and throwing Bible verses at me in hopes I’d move on from what they believed to be a “phase.”

But I never moved on.

I realized that I’d have to navigate my identities on my own, looking anywhere I could for guidance to overcome the hurdles I’d have to face. One hurdle I wasn’t prepared to face, though, was the difficulty my identities would cause when looking for love.

Many discussions surrounding queer hardships mostly focus on external, societal homophobia. We’ve just begun to have conversations about the hardships we as queer people place on each other. We, like our hetero counterparts, allow patriarchal and white supremacist ideologies to run rampant in our community, causing us to worship traditional definitions of beauty and mistreat those who exist outside of its confines.

The musical spends a lot of time pulling back the curtain on these politics of desirability. It examines what it’s like to exist in a body that isn’t praised by society and the physical and emotional toll that takes. As a fat, black man in the queer community, Usher isn’t found desirable under these archaic paradigms of beauty. Thus, he is subjected to ridicule by his own community and is left feeling lonely and unwanted.

His pleas for love and affection go unrequited. He only receives attention from men who dehumanize him and fetishize him sexually.

It’s an experience I understand deeply. I’d spend hours in the mirror picking myself apart, wondering why I couldn’t have the love my peers attained so easily – wondering why I wasn’t desired like them. I resented my appearance for years. I was so angry at the world that I directed that anger at myself, allowing my thoughts of doubt and self-loathing to consume me whole.

It’s a painful thing to experience and even more so to share. But as a sympathetic ear tells Usher in the musical, “If you’re not scared to write the truth, it’s probably not worth writing and if you’re not scared of living the truth, then it’s probably not worth living.”

Sometimes the answers we’re looking for never reveal themselves, sometimes they don’t even exist. Sometimes we are left with the pain circling our heads like spokes on a wheel as we look to life for answers. Sometimes, we’re left in the same place we started but with a new perspective. It’s all a cyclical paradox, and no matter what, we find ourselves at the center of this strange loop.

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