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Essay

From the Artistic Director: A Strange Loop

By Tim Sanford, Artistic Director
March 1, 2019

“The Strange Loop phenomenon occurs whenever, by moving upwards (or downwards) through levels of some hierarchical system, we unexpectedly find ourselves right back where we started.”
Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

“I only wanted more than I knew.”
Liz Phair, “Strange Loop” 

The term “strange loop” was coined by cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter. On the most immediate level, Michael R. Jackson introduces the term to describe his musical’s referentiality. It is a musical about a black, queer musical theater writer named Usher who is writing a musical about a black, queer musical theater writer named Usher...et cetera. But the aptness of the title only starts there; the number of strange loops that Usher seeks to circumnavigate is manifold. The opening number, which introduces our dry protagonist in his day job as an usher for The Lion King, sets us up to expect a show-biz satire. But Michael wastes no time in broadening his scope. Usher gets his name not just from his job — we also discern that he is taking us on a journey, one into his own identity and a larger subculture of queer African Americans. We glean that, like so many others, Usher has moved to New York to escape a narrow-minded, homophobic upbringing, but he cannot leave behind the depths of self-loathing that have been instilled in him. We recognize all too well the strange loop of family dynamics that he can’t seem to escape.

But moving to the big city to pursue his creative dreams just thrusts him into another strange loop, the equally demeaning prejudices in gay culture, either from fitness fascists or outright racists.

“Usher gets his name not just from his job — we also discern that he is taking us on a journey, one into his own identity and a larger subculture of queer African Americans.”

Citing W. E. B. Du Bois, Michael upholds that racism creates its own strange loop of “double consciousness” that continually reflects back the otherization of the “I.” At one point, after Usher withstands a harsh insult aimed at his physique, he responds that he has no time to feel; he will write a song instead. The force and authenticity of the character’s (and the author’s) musical talent proves an invaluable tool for his survival.

But can it help him change? Welcome to the paradox of theater. A play or a musical has a double-consciousness, doesn’t it? Much like Du Bois’s articulation of this concept, such works have the point of view of the writer and the reflective gaze of the audience. The theater is a specific art form that represents the dramatic action of human beings changing. And in the best plays and musicals, this transformation becomes transfiguration. We change, but the play ends, we start over, but are we starting from scratch? One of Michael’s artistic heroes, Liz Phair, brought an exemplary ferocious candor and vulnerability to her breakout album, Exile in Guyville. Michael pays tribute to her influence in the play when Usher tries to source his “inner white girl” to inspire resilience and truth. And the final lyric of that album’s concluding track, not coincidentally also called “Strange Loop,” says, “I only wanted more than I knew.” It is a loop because the thing she wants is the thing she doesn’t have. She thirsts for knowledge, and if she attains it, she is back at square one, wanting more. This is the strange loop of being human. The song fades out, we sing it to ourselves, we put it back on tomorrow, et cetera. That is the shape of change.