A Strange Loop, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning musical by Michael R. Jackson has leapt across the pond for a limited run on the West End. On a drizzly and overcast London evening, I got to sit on a Zoom with the show’s star, the lovely and soft-spoken Kyle Ramar Freeman, as he takes the helm as the protagonist, Usher. Usher is a young, Black, fat, gay man writing a musical about a young, Black, fat, gay man writing a musical about a young, Black, fat, gay man writing a… rollercoaster of self-contemplation and we are all along for the ride. During our conversation, Freeman (who was the understudy for Usher in the original cast on Broadway last year) talked about how London audiences are responding to a “big, Black and queer-ass American Broadway show,” what he is still learning about himself through playing Usher, how his all-British cast mates are faring playing the thoughts inside an American’s head, and the exciting upcoming year for Freeman when his time in A Strange Loop wraps up in September.
Hey Kyle! Thank you for hanging with me for a little bit. How are you?
I’m great, yourself?
I’m doing alright! It’s a very London-y day today, very rainy and overcast, at least where I’m at. So, before I ask you anything about A Strange Loop I want to go back in time a bit. I saw an interview you gave a while back where you mention that, as a kid around 8 years old, you knew you wanted to be a performer. Do you remember what show it was that you saw and were like, “Yes, that’s the thing!”?
It wasn’t anything I first saw, it’s what I felt. I was in an art’s school in elementary school and we got a chance to do Annie. I was not in the drama program I was in the dance program and I was also in the chorus of the school. And the actor they had could not sing “Easy Street,” so they incorporated different people from the chorus to sing songs from the show and that was my first taste of performing, and singing, and having choreo, and doing that in front of an audience and I was like, “oh that feels good!” And then right as YouTube started to become a thing, one of the videos that was on there first that I saw was Billy Porter doing “Beauty School Dropout” from Grease. I saw him do that and I was like, “Oh that’s what I want to do.” I want to be in crazy costumes and sing.
That’s amazing. I love that story so much! To fast forward a bit, you start integrating that into your life, you graduated from AMDA, at what stage in A Strange Loop’s development did you sign onto it?
I joined A Strange Loop right at the beginning of their Broadway run. It was Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, and then it went to Washington, D.C., before doing Broadway. They were looking for more people to join the Broadway cast and that’s when I auditioned. Then from the very first day of rehearsals until the last day on Broadway I was there.
We both have a mutual in common, Jason Veasey (originator of Thought 5). How was it coming into this production with people who had been a part of it for a decade, at least, at that point?
First of all, everybody knows Jason [laughs]. I’m like, how am I in London and people know Jason? Jason was actually the first cast member to reach out to me. He was the first person to say “welcome to the family” so that made me feel really good and so I wasn’t completely just blind coming in having not said anything to anybody. It was fun! Everybody that did it on Broadway are stars. They are just amazing performers. So, the first day of rehearsals, for instance, as an understudy or anybody doing the show, you think you’re going to come in and everybody learns the show together. Everybody starts out on the same level. When we got to rehearsal we just watched the cast perform the show. That was completely intimidating because they had fully fleshed out these characters, they had lived with them for years, they understood the material better than anybody. They were just doing the show so, it was playing catch up for at least 3 months because everybody besides the four new understudies knew the show. I was just like, “Oh, this is going to be interesting!” [Laughs]. So, I had to learn the show on my own. It was intimidating but it all worked out.
What a crash course that must have been. How much did you know about A Strange Loop before you auditioned for it?
I didn’t know much of anything. When I first heard of it I had a friend of mine call me up and say, “Kyle, you gotta go see this show called A Strange Loop. It’s playing at Playwrights Horizons and you gotta go see it.” And I was like, ok, and he was like, “No you HAVE to go see it because it’s telling our story. It’s Black, it’s gay, it’s saying something” and I was like ok ok ok I’ll go see it! I didn’t get a chance to go see it, of course, and another friend of mine [was] calling me up and saying, “You gotta go see this show. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.” Then the next time I ran across it was in auditions for it and when I got a monologue. That one monologue alone I was like, I have never seen anyone write these words and put it in a show and have people hear it. I was like, this is brave and it felt like somebody had went through my personal journals or read my brain because it was saying a lot of the things that I had felt in this life as a Black, fat, gay performer. So, it was crazy intimidating but a breath of fresh air.
Because you’ve had the opportunity to live with Usher for quite a long time now I was wondering what you are still learning about him and, in addition to that, what has Usher taught you about yourself?
What I’m still learning from Usher is that things in life take time to develop. Even how you talk to yourself. Even how you go about doing your creative work. It takes time… when you’re creating something sometimes it reveals something about you that you didn’t know you had in you and that’s what Usher continuously teaches me. To take my time to figure out what I want to present while figuring out who I am as an artist.
On the topic of thoughts, you have cast members now who are all British and playing the Thoughts in the head of an American… are they ok?
They are terrible. [Jokes]
They’re really struggling right now? [Laughs]
No, everybody in this company is remarkably talented and fiercely kind to each other and to the work. Everybody is ten toes down and ready to tell the story. They were excited about the work. What the show does to the audience, you kinda confront your own beliefs and ideals about your own self and your own place in the world and they [his cast members] were so beautifully exploring that, which made me explore the piece more as well. Everybody brings such a crazy, unique energy to the piece that makes it feel new.
Even though I’m kinda doing the same show I did before, but having this set of actors they all bring something so specific and beautiful to the telling of the story. It’s so fun to watch because I could never be… I won’t say I could never be, it would be hard for me to be in a British show and try to do a British accent and understand a culture that I did not grow up in. The fact that they are doing an American accent, telling an American story, yes, they’re all Black, but Black people are not the same everywhere you go. There are cultural differences and they’ve been able to adapt so beautifully that I’m really amazed at their ability to do that and do it so well. They are top tier talent.
Yeah, I saw you guys a couple of weeks ago and it was such an amazing performance. I mean you, first of all, sing like an angel and sing your face off and the amount of vulnerability and levity that you balance together is just so wonderful to watch. To piggyback on the cultural differences you brought up, that’s something I’m interested in understanding more from your perspective. Not only from working with people who grew up in a different culture but also the differences in the American versus British audiences. What are the biggest things you’ve noticed?
Well, with the audience, Americans are loud, and rowdy, and boisterous. So when we go see theater and that theater piece invites you to laugh out loud and make noise it’s no problem for us to do that. We are like, oh this is what you want from us, we will give it to you one thousand percent! The audience here, while they are very similar to American audiences with laughing at certain moments in the show, they’re just a bit more reserved. Because they haven’t received theater like this in this way and the show invites you to go on a rollercoaster ride and to make noise and to laugh out loud and do all the “oohs” and “aahs” because that adds to the fun of the show. They’re a bit more hesitant, but about midway in they are fully on board. It’s amazing to watch.
Yeah, and with the heavier topics, what are you receiving from people in terms of the Gospel number “Precious Little Dream/AIDS Is God’s Punishment” and also the racist history that’s illuminated in there as well? Has there been a difference in how those moments are received from audience to audience?
The show covers topics that are uncomfortable wherever you go, so it’s pretty much the same. It is always like, the first top of the show is fun fun fun, laughing laughing laughing, joke joke joke. There comes a point where it just gets uncomfortable and you have to sit in that. And that’s gonna be a universal thing wherever this show goes because Usher is a person who has to drive the point home in such a big way, so the things that we have to do are big in its presentation. The words that we’re saying are so heavy [and] there comes a point where we’re gonna make you sit and be uncomfortable, we’re gonna make you sit with Usher being complicated and maybe not showing his best side and you may be a bit upset at him for doing what he does in the show. But it’s not much different and I think at a certain point people are like, “Oh no, what have I walked into” [laughs].
One review I quickly skimmed over gave [the disclaimer] “Lots of American references!” Have you experienced any feedback specifically around those references and people just not getting it?
Honestly, in New York, a lot of people didn’t understand some of the references because it’s a lot of gay lingo.
Interesting! (Internally screams: “Get it together New York!”)
And there are certain people who are titans in the business of entertainment that everybody’s just not privy to. The big one here that I’ve seen is that people just don’t know who Tyler Perry is.
I was going to ask that, I was curious if anyone knew [Tyler Perry] because he’s such an American staple and I feel like his story is very specifically American and [shows an aspect of the] African American [experience]. I was very curious about whether any of the Tyler Perry references were going over people’s heads.
Yeah, I think some have heard of him, of course. But they don’t know the weight that he carries in the entertainment industry or even him being a billionaire. Or him, you know, changing the way Black media is seen. They don’t really get that. So, I’ve laughed a few times [when I’ve] heard people be like, “Who is Tyler Perry?” [Laughs].
You [as Usher] talk about Tyler Perry quite a lot!
That’s really the major one that’s come up where people just don’t know who he is.
On the topic of London, generally, when did you come out here to start rehearsals?
I came here in May, so [it’s been] about two months.
How has it been for you?
It’s been great! I mean, I’ve been starting to see London because I was in rehearsal every day and at the theater all day so I was not able to see much of it. But now that I have my days, I can go out and I’m able to do all the touristy things now. But beforehand I was completely just at my flat and then at the theater.
That makes sense. What’s been your favorite thing about being over here?
People are polite here. They are very nice. Compared to New York City, it appears to be much cleaner. I think it’s just the nature of the culture here, people are just more polite and reserved and coming from America everything is like, overt and larger than life. Everybody here is pleasant and they have proper tea breaks, which is lovely.
Anything you miss from home?
I do miss that, specifically in New York, things are open past 11 o’clock. [Laughs]. Everything here kinda closes at midnight or stops serving food and what will happen is like, after the show, we’re done by 10pm by the time we’re out of costume and then you go out to meet people and say “Hi” and they wanna go out and you have like, an hour before things are shut down. Especially in the area that we’re in. It’s very much a business part of town so there’s really nothing around. And that sucks. That’s about it.
This is a limited-run show, just going through September, do you have any idea of what’s coming up after for you? Or is the main focus the show right now?
Yes! For the first time in my career I know what I’m doing for the next year of my life, which is interesting. After I leave here I will go back to New York, to start the tour that will eventually land on Broadway. That show is called The Wiz! And I will be the Lion in The Wiz. It’s a huge show that’s coming back. It hasn’t been on Broadway in 40 years.
Yeah, it’s a big deal! It’s been trying to come back to Broadway for years. It’s one of those shows like Dream Girls, that we haven’t had in America in forever but we’ve talked about bringing back. And now I’m finally doing a show that’s so heavily anticipated. I’ll get to do the tour for 5-6 months and then we’ll go to Broadway and that’s until August of next year .
That’s amazing, congratulations! So, we only have a few minutes left. At Geeks OUT, on our podcast our host [Kevin Gilligan] will ask the guest what they’re getting down and nerdy with. So, I’d love to know what you’re getting down and nerdy with?
Well, I love podcasts in general. I will discover a podcast every week or so and give it a listen. But I also love TV and I have been deep into Black Mirror because that is just what I love. I love the type of stories they create, their branding of mixing reality with technology and how that affects the world and how it could affect the world. I love having conversations about that.
Yeah, it’s like magical realism but spooky [laughs]. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.
Thank you, I loved it!
See the wonderful Kyle Ramar Freeman and his exceptional cast mates in A Strange Loop, currently running at the Barbican Theatre in London through September 9th, 2023.