Recently “A Strange Loop,” the Tony Award winning musical playing at the Lyceum Theatre on West 45th Street, held a Black theater night that included a talkback. After watching this very original musical about a fat, Black gay man writing a musical about a fat, Black, gay man writing a musical, the audience was treated to a fantastic talkback hosted by Trevor Noah from “The Daily Show.” Noah, a huge fan of the musical, shared that this makes his fourth time seeing the show. “Every single time I come I feel like I’m focusing on something different, I’m learning something different and there’s a different part of the play that always gets revealed to me,” Noah said. Noah stated that the show is radical, layered and complicated and asked its creator of book, music and lyrics, Michael R. Jackson, if he thought people would get it. Jackson responded, “Yes…Watching the show I realized that the show is what it is and it is continually showing itself to the audience and I found myself moved again by the fact that this is a piece that by just being itself it is kind of radical,” Jackson explained.
Noah said that describing it, one could say this is a play about Black and white, this is a play about religion and how it controls people’s lives and then it becomes about acceptance…the most confining system would be our minds. He asked Jackson, “When you watch this play does it free you—this is you expressing yourself?” Jackson replied, “Yes, it feels artistically validating because I spent so many years trying to craft this experience of this person, of this essence, of this thought process trying to understand itself and then how people come to that and be a part of it and to see that that is still working, it means a lot.”
Choreographer Raja Feather Kelly was asked by Noah, “As a choreographer, when you create the moods, what are you trying to get us to feel?” Kelly replied, “I’m trying to make you see that they are people, I think something that’s most fascinating to me and similar to Michael, is that the choreography is built on their behavior. It’s not built in a way where everyone has to do the exact same thing at the same time. Everyone is meant to express themselves in a container and that has an ability to grow and shift like the image that Michael gave us. If that’s achieved then you all can see yourselves in different parts of them and their behavior and that evolves … What’s unique about this musical is that the choreography moves the story forward.”
Noah, speaking to James Jackson Jr.—Thought 2, Daily Self-Loathing, Usher’s mother—shared that every character he delivers seems very intentional. “I think you have to just tell the truth as much as possible without the idea of making fun of someone, and I think people seem to relate to that,” Jackson said.
John Andrew Morrison plays Thought 4 and Usher’s mother. Noah mentioned his favorite moment with that character, which is the yearly birthday call. Noah said, “The yearly call is one of my favorite moments—we see that his mother loves him, but she is a source of pain.” Morrison stunned the crowd when he explained, “She’s in her own strange loop.” He remarked, “She loved her son more than anyone…My mom used to say to me, if I didn’t care about you, I wouldn’t fuss on you—because his mother cares she loves him enough to hurt his feelings, but she doesn’t think that it’s damaging, as much as it gives guidance. But it’s absolute love,” Morrison said. “You play the honesty of the thing. I honor my mom and a lot of women that I grew up with.”
To Jason Veasey, Thought 5 and Usher’s father, Noah remarked, “You play an idea of oppression contained in the gay community and the male community, we see that in two different scenes. We see you through Usher’s dad, he feels he’s the victim, take us through that.” Veasey responded, “I look at the dad as someone who is asking his son questions. He is trying to figure out who this alien is who happens to be his child and then when his child tells him that those questions are harming him he has no other tools in his box, he’s at a loss. That’s when he can’t handle it anymore. He lets that lack of tools push him to a point where he has to go,” Veasey added. Noah talked about how the show poses questions about homosexuality and asks is that the way that a Black man, a Black son should be?
John Michel Reese, understudy for Thoughts 4, 5, 6, played Thought 6 that evening. Noah said that he loved Reese’s interpretation of the character. “It’s a crazy role to do. I think of it as chaotic. He’s here and he’s all over the place. I ultimately try to go and have fun.”
To John-Michael Lyles, Thought 3, Agent and Usher’s brother, Noah remarked, “What I love with you is every character fits. What is your process in thinking why these characters can be funny and real at the same time?” “I feel like I’m the antagonist and don’t play the role with a truth,” Lyles said.
Rona Siddiqui, musical director, received congratulations from Noah on the show’s Grammy nomination for best musical theater album. Noah asked, “From one tempo to the next, what are you trying to do in tandem with the performers?” “Why do a musical to begin with, it’s to heighten everything, so when you start to sing every single note you have to represent and then how to amplify that to get it to be the exact comedic moment or touching moment and then how do we crescendo this, it’s all in the details,” Siddiqui explained.
Speaking to L Morgan Lee, Thought 1, Noah remarked, “You keep us hopeful as an audience. Take me through the hows and whys and what you’re trying to do.” “I think that Thought 1 being the only woman in the story has a lot on her shoulders, as Black women do. I think that she is always trying to get Usher to think outside of the box that he has put himself into. She wants Usher to live, to feel free and in those ways that’s certainly L Morgan…I want you to live your life and know why you’re doing it…She likes for Usher to take a leap,” Lee explained.
In talking to lead actor Jaquel Spivey, who plays Usher, Noah said, “It feels like an understatement to say you play Usher, you are Usher…you are this human being we travel with through every disappointment, through every hurt and also every little moment of mischief and joy as well. When you think of Usher, what do you think of?” Spivey answered, “I want them to see a real person. I feel like we’re telling a real story about somebody who exists that you probably don’t care about, but they have worth and you should think they have worth, but since you don’t we’re going to show you why he does and we’re also going to show you why he doesn’t think he does and it’s because of you…We’re people, we’re trying our best and we are all trying to figure out our life’s journey.” “As you performed Usher what have you learned?” Noah asked. Spivey answered, “What I’ve learned is that his imperfections are what make him gorgeous to me…For me, how I play Usher, I want the audience to wonder at the end of the show, what happens next. I don’t want you to think he’s made up his mind…Does he do better, does he strive for better? You’re watching him find the hope within himself.”
Noah shared, “This show is a ride, it leaves you thinking; there are many parts where you want to cry and you do cry. I hope you know what an amazing job you all do here.”
The musical will only play through Jan. 15, 2023, so make plans to see it!