Tony Award winning musical, A Strange Loop, has hit the West End via the Barbican Theatre after an incredibly successful run on Broadway. It follows Usher, a gay Black theatre usher pursuing his dream of being a playwright while battling inner demons which are brought to life in the show as the ‘Thoughts’. Written by Micheal R Jackson, A Strange Loop is a one-of-a-kind, funny, frank exploration of sexuality, identity and confidence through a queer Black lens.
We caught up with Kyle Ramar Freeman who plays Usher to talk about his love of performing and all the things that make A Strange Loop so special.
AZ: Please could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you like to get into other than acting?
K: I’m Kyle Ramar Freeman. I’m originally from Miami, Florida. I’ve been doing theatre and singing all of my life. I did it in church, in school and in the community. I moved to New York City when I was 18. And I’ve been there for the past 11 years. I’ve been on tours, I’ve done Broadway and I’ve done regional theatre. This is my passion and what I love doing and I’m happy that my passion has brought me to London because I love it here.
When I’m not doing theatre, I like watching tons of television and movies, I love a good karaoke moment and I love going for walks. I also love trying new foods and laughing. If anything can make me belly laugh, I’m into that. Whether that’s going to comedy shows or hanging out with my friends watching stupid videos on Youtube.
AZ: At what point did you realise performing is your calling?
K: The bug bit when I saw Billy Porter perform Beauty School Dropout on the Rosie O’Donnell Show. He performed so well and seeing him was like, Oh, this is going to be my reality, this is what I want to do. Before that, being on stage was fun and I knew I had talent, but I wasn’t thinking long-term, it was just a hobby.
AZ: When you initially read the script, what was your reaction to A Strange Loop?
K: My first reaction was who has been in my brain and reading through my journals? And who has been following me throughout my life? The material is very relatable. Usher and I have a lot of similarities in that we’re both Black and queer and in musical theatre, trying to navigate a space that is predominantly white. I was like wow I can’t believe somebody was brave enough to write this down.
By the time I read the script, it was already a Pulitzer Prize winning musical. It proved that when you are specific, and you tell the truth about whatever experience you’re trying to portray truthfully and boldly, people will celebrate it.
AZ: How would you describe the show’s essence?
K: It’s a very gay show and I love that it’s gay. It’s so gay, that it uncovers different things that I had no idea were a part of the culture or within the community. So I even learned things about gay people throughout the piece.
AZ: What kind of things did you learn?
K: This is a bit random but there are certain sexual acts that I didn’t know were a thing. Specifically something called belching… you can look it up and enjoy that. In terms of queer history, there’s a reference in the show to a person named Dan Savage. He’s a leader of sorts and was part of a movement that I was unaware of.
AZ: Is anything surprising that you’ve learned about yourself through this role?
K: I’ve learned that I’m stronger than I thought I was and that I actually have a lot more self confidence than Usher does. He also struggles with not feeling Black enough and I found that I’m very Black and I love that about myself. I love that I come from a strong lineage of people who have such a rich history of resilience. As Usher’s telling his story we see he has resilience that he hasn’t even tapped into that’s attached to his blackness. I found out that I have that as well and it was great to discover.
AZ: What was the most challenging thing about playing Usher?
K: The trickiest thing is separating myself from the character when I’m not feeling my best. Throughout the show Usher is surrounded by his Thoughts and they’re vocalising things that he’s saying to himself, or thoughts he has about himself. They are not the nicest or kindest things to hear and I have to try to stay in the space of remembering that it’s Usher that thinks these things of himself, not me Kyle the person. It’s difficult because we are so similar and sometimes those lines can be blurred especially if I’m having a bad day or just not feeling like my best self.
AZ: How do you decompress after a particularly heavy performance or when you’re feeling rundown?
K: Usually if I’m having a bad day I use that energy and I put it into the show and try to tell the story. Once I’m done I come off the stage, rip off the clothes that I have on and I put on music. That’s therapeutic for me. I blast a song and I put on my clothes and I do my hair differently as I leave the theatre just so that I don’t feel like I’m carrying Usher with me. Then like most people, I go on Tik Tok or talk to friends. I go down rabbit holes or I watch one of my favourite movies which is on Netflix here in the UK, Last holiday.
AZ: Is there one song from the show that you’re particularly enjoying performing at the moment?
K: It varies. This week it’s the song Today because I think it just embodies what the show is and what Usher is like. [In the song] Usher tries to start off the day, being super optimistic about writing his show and getting that done. But inevitably life happens which deters him from completing the task that he wants to complete. Self loathing pops up and starts talking trash, his landlord is fussing about something that causes him to miss the train but he’s still optimistic. He has all of these sexual desires that he doesn’t know what to do with because he doesn’t fit the mould of the people that he’s attracted to… it just perfectly embodies Usher’s fluctuating emotions and the battle against our inner-monologues that have us doubting who we are and what we’re worth.
AZ: What advice would you give to the Ushers of the world?
K: My advice is something that I learned from Michael R. Jackson and that is to learn to talk to yourself nicely, at least just as much as you talk to yourself badly, so there’s balance. Also let your art take the time it needs to be complete. Michael took like 16 years to create A Strange Loop and when he started out it was a monologue and then it turned into a song and then it turned into an idea that then birthed A Strange Loop. So I would say take your time, don’t rush your art. Don’t look at the people around you. Focus on what you are setting your hands on and let time be your friend. Even if it takes 20 years, it’ll be worth it because it’ll be exactly what you want it to be.
A Strange Loop is showing at The Barbican Theatre until September 9th.