Young actor’s journey brings him to ‘A Strange Loop’

By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

Malachi McCaskill was scrolling through the social media apps on his phone as he does “frequently” throughout the day when he came across a casting notice for the touring company of the award-winning play, ‘A Strange Loop.’

A budding actor with college and North Carolina theater credits to his name, he thought about it for a minute, and then asked himself, “Why not?”

“I decided to throw my hat into the ring,” said McCaskill during a phone call from his North Carolina home. “I read what they were looking for and it sounded familiar and personal to me. I could relate to the character so I sent in my audition video. I guess they must have liked it, because look at me now.”

To look at him now is to know that McCaskill, whose enthusiasm is palpable even through the phone, is living his dream.

The actor, in his early 20s is starring in the Los Angeles premiere of the Tony Award (2022) and Pulitzer Prize (2020) winning acclaimed musical, “A Strange Loop,” a co-production with American Conservatory Theater now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre through June 30.

The show, written by Michael R. Jackson, is about a frustrated Black queer writer, who while working as an usher for “The Lion King,” writes a musical about a Black queer writer named Usher, who happens to be writing a musical about a Black queer writer.

When describing the show, Jackson has been quoted as saying Usher, “Is cycling through his self-perceptions and his thoughts take form around him.”

The storyline is inspired by Jackson’s real-life journey as an usher for the widely acclaimed “The Lion King” production.

Jackson said that while he did draw from personal experience to write the show, it’s not autobiographical, but it’s emotionally autobiographical. He added that he felt everything that Usher had felt.

“A Strange Loop” is said to expose the heart and soul of a young artist grappling with desires, identity, insecurities, fear and instincts he loves and loathes. Hell-bent on breaking free of his self-perception, Usher, whom McCaskill describes as “fat, Black, gay and queer,” wrestles with the thoughts in his head, brought to life on stage by a hilarious, straight-shooting ensemble.

“I can relate to Usher and all of the issues he’s encountered because I’ve gone through something similar,” said McCaskill, who is making his Center Theater Group debut. “It took me a while to work through some things, but when you finally know who you are — who you really are — it allows all that negativity to melt away. You have to do the work, though. We all have our strange loop. This is Usher’s.”

Center Theater Group Artistic Director Snehal Desai called the musical “one of the most discussed and awarded musicals of our time. It is also audacious, hilarious, empowering and very moving.”

McCaskill said one of his favorite things about the show is that it is “unapologetically Black.”

“I love that,” he said. “I love the honesty in the show. It doesn’t hold back. It gets a little uncomfortable, but sometimes you need to be uncomfortable in order to make a breakthrough. The character I play is going through some internal conflicts that are messing with his thoughts and his mind.”

Some of the conflict has to do with his relationship with his parents, while others have to deal with his personal goals.

“I love that he’s a full character,” said McCaskill, who has also set his sights on breaking into television and film. “He’s not unlike most of us. Everyone struggles with something. I love the realness. He is struggling with his self-image. I went through the same thing. The struggle is real. I love that this story can resonate with so many people. I also love being in a show with awesome artists who get it. And get you.”

If starring in a major play on a major stage for the first time was not enough of a challenge, McCaskill is simultaneously obtaining his bachelor’s in fine arts degree in musical theatre at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where he has appeared in several of the school’s productions.

Some of his credits include :The SpongeBob Musical,” “Rock of Ages,” “Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea” and “Godspell” at UNC Greensboro. He was also in the ensemble of “The Color Purple” at the Barn Dinner Theatre, plus “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” (Swing) and “Elf The Musical” (Macy’s Store Manager) at the North Carolina Theatre!

In fact, McCaskill had just agreed to take on a lead role in a production when he got the call that he had scored the top spot in “A Strange Loop.”

“I’m a junior at UNC,” said McCaskill. “I had to tell the director and the cast and everybody that I had to leave. Of course, they all understood. This is what I’ve been working towards. This whole thing is surreal. This is a great opportunity. I get to go into the deepest part of my life and I get to work it out on stage. This whole thing has been amazing.”

“A Strange Loop,” is written by Michael R. Jackson, directed by Stephen Brackett and stars McCaskill, Jordan Barbour, J. Cameron Barnett, Carlis Shane Clark, Alvis Green Jr., Avionce Hoyles, Tarra Conner Jones, John-Andrew Morrison, Dave Abrams, Angela Alise, Albert Hodge and Tristan J Shuler.

Choreography is by Raja Feather Kelly, with scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado, costumes by Montana Levi Blanco and lighting by Jen Schriever.

Tickets start at $35. For more information, visit centertheatregroup.org.

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.

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