Arts

Preview: John-Andrew Morrison Speaks on ‘A Strange Loop’ Circling the Ahmanson

(L-R) J. Cameron Barnett, Jordan Barbour, Avionce Hoyles, Malachi McCaskill, Tarra Conner Jones, John-Andrew Morrison, and Jamari Johnson Williams in Center Theatre Group and American Conservatory's production of "A Strange Loop." Photo by Alessandra Mello

Since A Strange Loop won over audiences in New York, it was only a matter of time the Pulitzer-Prize and Tony Award-winning musical — written, composed, and lyricized by Michael R. Jordan — made its way to Los Angeles. A key reason for this migration is the partnership of the American Conservatory Theatre and Center Theatre Group which have teamed up to see the 90-minute, layered-like-an-onion production make its west coast premiere last month in San Francisco before soon routing through the Ahmanson Theatre from June 5th until the 30th.

This Strange Loop is indeed peculiar in its existential and perhaps cosmological significance. At its root is a character, Usher, a queer Black writer, who goes on an individual odyssey of self after being disillusioned with his quotidian life. Usher pens a musical about himself and his circumstances; the funny thing is that his self-inspired character in the musical is also writing about the same individual, also in a musical. It’s essentially a pandora’s box of parallel universes where Usher, in all his iterations, is confronted with his thoughts and their motivations.

And these aren’t just any ole musings, but personified Thoughts, portrayed by a galvanic ensemble. One of these is Thought 4, played by John-Andrew Morrison, a from-the-beginning stalwart of A Strange Loop. The Kingston, Jamaica native, who immigrated to the United States at 18 before earning his M.F.A. in Acting from U.C. San Diego some years later, has been Tony-nominated for this very show.

(L-R) Tarra Conner Jones, Jordan Barbour, John-Andrew Morrison, Malachi McCaskill, Avionce Hoyles, J. Cameron Barnett, and Jamari Johson Williams in Center Theatre Group and American Conservatory’s production of A Strange Loop. Photo by Alessandra Mello

In an interview with LAexcites, Morrison elaborated on how this west coast premiere came about, his experiences with the different casts of A Strange Loop, why the unique presentation works, his character, and what he thinks the musical is ultimately about.

How did this special two-city engagement transpire, beginning with the west coast premiere in San Francisco, followed by this upcoming run at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles?

Morrison: Well, I heard it was going to be happening from the director Stephen Brackett and, sometime last year at the end of summer, he reached out to me and we had lunch to discuss doing the show again. I spent some time thinking about whether I wanted to go back into the loop, and I thought sure, why not [laughs].

Everyone should be seeing it, but the reality is I’m not sure there are many markets that can handle this show. The fact I can do it in San Francisco and now L.A. feels just right.

And what we know as the Broadway production is done after L.A. The show is now licensed, and there’s a company in Boston called the SpeakEasy Stage Company that just did their own imagining of the show, and what’s interesting is that is where I started my career many, many years ago [laughs]. I had these certificates of accomplishment given out to the cast in Boston [laughs] as that is something I like doing on opening night. Of the current (west coast) cast, J. Cameron Barnett has joked how he’s still trying to get a certificate [laughs].

It’s terrific to be part of this project, and I’m proud to know my name is on the copy of the licensed script and score. If I can welcome others into the madness of A Strange Loop, I’m happy to do it!

(L-R) J. Cameron Barnett, Tarra Conner Jones, Jamari Johnson Williams, John-Andrew Morrison, Malachi McCaskill, Jordan Barbour, and Avionce Hoyles in Center Theatre Group and American Conservatory’s production of A Strange Loop. Photo by Alessandra Mello

This isn’t your first go-around with A Strange Loop. How would you say this cast, and your overall experience, compares with the one on and Off Broadway?

Morrison: I’m the only person who did Off Broadway and Broadway, so it’s an entirely new company and cast, but it’s the original Broadway staging — set, costumes, and aesthetic. The cast, other than me, is completely different.

What’s fantastic is that Stephen has asked everyone to bring only themselves to the show; in other words, he hasn’t really allowed the actors to mimic other people’s choices. So, as someone used to other people’s rhythms, the show has become new again because I’m carrying things differently and reacting to different rhythms than I did on and Off Broadway. After workshopping the show for many years, it’s been great to get different interpretations and work off them.

And even our Usher, Malachi [McCaskill], is so wonderful. But, again, he’s found his own approach to a part that is heartbreaking and wonderful. It’s been delicious to revisit the show anew through a lens of new people and interpretations. It’s like a different loop of the production, which comes from the creative team.

Malachi McCaskill in Center Theatre Group and American Conservatory’s production of A Strange Loop. Photo by Alessandra Mello

This is a show within a show, within a show. The meta runs deep in this musical, kind of like [title of show]. What do you think is the ultimate advantage to this style of presentation for the audience?

Morrison: [title of show] is one of my favorites; I saw it four times on Broadway. I think it was also in our Broadway house at the Lyceum Theatre (Note to reader: The two musicals did in fact share the same space at different times). What’s fantastic is that the ‘Thoughts’ (the names of the characters) are dressed in their own outfits. Visually, that is what allows for the audience to kind of project onto the piece, so when I’m playing the mom, I just put on pieces of a Sunday church dress, but what happens is that the people in the audience finish the work — once I’ve started it — to ensure she’s fully realized in a way. Because when I come out and meet audience members, they know they can identify with the mom in some form, even though I still have my goatee [laughs].

Also, I think it’s a testament to the writing, which is very honest, and allows people to connect with it. At the end of the day, what we’re seeing and cycling through is having a relationship with daily self-loathing. Everyone has experienced fears about their life, who they’re going to date, and so on. Everyone has had a thing where they don’t want to disappoint parents or their upbringing. Even though the visual is of a fat, black, gay man, the themes are universal — and the things he’s going through are what people find themselves in all the time.

In the first preview we had Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizon, we had a bunch off theatregoers who didn’t react, but at the end, they rose to their feet and there was this older white man who shouted, ‘Thank you, thank you.’ There were older Jewish women who also remarked that this was like their family. Ultimately, the white man and the Jewish women were able to find themselves in the show. It’s a testament to what the writing does — and that, more than anything, has been true and proven over and over again.

[Conversely], there are also people who don’t like the show and walk out during certain moments and miss the catharsis of the piece at the end.

(L-R) Jordan Barbour, Avionce Hoyles, Malachi McCaskill, John-Andrew Morrison, and J. Cameron Barnett in Center Theatre Group and American Conservatory’s production of A Strange Loop. Photo by Alessandra Mello.

Tell us about your unique “Thought 4” character and how it has evolved, or hasn’t evolved, in the different productions of A Strange Loop?

Morrison: Yes, I play it, and that Thought takes on the final iteration of mother, and I kind of roll with that through the end. I sing the song “Periodically,” which comes at a fraught time during the show, and it’s a wonderful part in the sense I get to be part of the last 20 minutes with Usher.

When I first did the musical, it was [less than a year] before the pandemic [laughs], and my mom came to see the show Off Broadway at the Playwrights Horizon — a dream of hers. And during pandemic, she had a massive stroke, lost the ability to speak, and move the right side of her body. Through physical therapy, she got some movement back, but the ability to speak has gone, making it a very challenging reality and time for my family.

For me, it has brought to the forefront that time and your soul are precious, and that really is in essence what the mother in the show is fighting for — the soul of her kid and that he doesn’t go to hell because she wants her kid to be saved. And for me, it heightened the urgency that this woman has in trying to save someone that she loves more than anything in life. It’s complicated because love can hurt, which is highlighted in A Strange Loop. As much as [the mother] loves her son, she hurts him deeply. It reminds me of what my mom said: ‘If I didn’t care about you, I wouldn’t fuss about you.’

(L-R) J. Cameron Barnett, Tarra Conner Jones, Jordan Barbour, Malachi McCaskill, Avionce Hoyles, John-Andrew Morrison, and Jamari Johnson Williams in Center Theatre Group and American Conservatory’s production of A Strange Loop. Photo by Alessandra Mello

A key component of the premise involves the protagonist going on an introspective odyssey where he reexamines the way he perceives of himself. Do you think the message of this is that one’s identity is subject to change or is it broader than that?

Morrison: Sure, yes [laughs]. It’s what you need it to be, really. And one of the things we talked about when developing the show Off Broadway is asking, ‘What is it [A Strange Loop]? Is it akin to a crystal? Are we looking at a crystal, and is the crystal the thing we’re supposed to examine, or is it the reflection or refraction of the image that is the thing? Or is the thing the colored facets within the crystal? Or is it all of the above?

At one point in time, all of us play the father, and all of us play the mother, and at another time J. Cameron Barnett plays the mother, and I play the mother. And these scenes are very different; one is hyper-comedic and one is melodramatic. Is he [Usher] looking at the family through this crystal, and seeing a different story in this crystal, or is he seeing a different version of the family?

So, it’s his [Usher’s] perception. The whole show is about how you choose to perceive the world, and what you focus on is what grows. So, when we talk about what the show is — is it a crystal, the prism it presents, or its facets — we realize it’s all of it. So, when you ask is it this or that, the only answer is ‘yes’ [laughs]. For this reason, people of different backgrounds and orientations are able to find themselves in the show.

A Strange Loop runs from June 5th through June 30th at the Ahmanson Theatre. For more information on the production and to purchase tickets, visit centertheatregroup.org.

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