Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

A Strange Loop
American Conservatory Theater

Also see Patrick's recent review of Forever Plaid

Avionce Hoyles, J. Cameron Barnett,
Malachi McCaskill, Jamari Johnson Williams,
Jordan Barbour, and John-Andrew Morrison

Photo by Alessandra Mello
If you are familiar with the work of Dutch artist M.C. Escher, you will know his art often turns in on itself. In one, a pair of hands seems to rise out of a piece of paper, each holding a pencil, seemingly drawing the other into existence. In another, a waterfall seems to feed itself in a perpetual loop. These are just two examples of what the American cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter called "strange loops."

Hofstadter is mentioned in the new musical A Strange Loop, which opened this week in a West Coast premiere at American Conservatory Theater's Toni Rembe Theater, in large part because the show itself is its own sort of strange loop. It's a musical about a black queer writer trying to write a musical about a black queer writer, and it just happens to be written by a black queer writer, Michael R. Jackson.

As anyone who has ever tried to create serious art knows, it's all too easy for the artist's doubts and insecurities to become roadblocks in achieving their goal. In A Strange Loop, those doubts and insecurities are personified by six performers who are identified at "Thoughts," in that they are the negative thoughts running through the head of Usher, as the protagonist is identified in the show. The name Usher comes from the fact that Usher (Malachi McCaskill) works as an usher at Disney's The Lion King, and that Usher is the name of a famous musical artist, just as the writer himself shares his name with a famous musical artist.

Usher's thoughts even give themselves job titles of a sort. One is "your daily dose of self-loathing" spouting lines like "never forget how fat and ugly you are." Other Thoughts identify themselves as "financial faggotry," "corporate niggotry," and "supervisor of your sexual ambivalence." They circle him like hectoring beasts, attacking him from all sides, seeking weak moments, hesitations, soft spots–anything to mess with Usher's mind and keep him stuck in the doom loop of insecurity.

The Thoughts (played by Jordan Barbour, J. Cameron Barnett, Avionics Hoyles, Terra Conner Jones, John Andrew Morrison and Carlis Shane Clark) also take on a wide variety of other roles, playing Usher's parents, his ne'er-do-well brother, his agent, a man he meets on the subway who thinks he's sexy (or, as one of the songs states at one point, "Yes, you're ugly. Yes, you're fat. But somewhere someone's into that."), and dozens more.

A Strange Loop is a thrilling 100 or so minutes that will take you to places you've never been in a theater, and evoke emotions and reactions that will have you alternately laughing, grimacing in empathy, and rooting for Usher to either find his way out of the strange loop in which he is trapped–or at least accept his fate and come to some sort of peace with himself. But with his religious mother refusing to accept his "homoseshuality" and his father (always with a Miller High Life in his hand) wondering if his son is sexually attracted to him, the journey will be a long one.

Poor Usher–no matter how hard he tries, he can't escape the fact that he lives in a racist society. It's not that he complains about the injustice of institutional racism, it's just that it's so pervasive that it almost incapacitates him. Early in the show he talks about how his "inner white girl wants to come out to play," because, he sings, "white girls can do anything they want, can't they?" But later he's admonished that "ain't no inner white girl gonna let you get away from this" as one of the Thoughts strokes his black skin.

There are so many moments in the show that will delight, anger, and even shock you that's it's hard to convey just how richly multi-layered is the construction created by writer Michael R. Jackson, director Stephen Brackett, and choreographer Raja Feather Kelly. You might find yourself clapping along to the song "AIDS is God's Punishment" before you realize how odd that is. But when one of the Thoughts tells Usher, "If you're not scared of writing the truth, then it's probably not worth writing,” Usher's courage is more clearly illuminated."

Thank goodness Jackson overcame his fears to bravely reveal the struggle all artists face in bringing truth to light in a way that is both dramatic and stupendously thrilling.

A Strange Loop runs through May 12, 2024, at American Conservatory Theater, Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm, with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets range from $25-$158. For tickets and information, please visit