*published in The EDGE on 19 June 2014
“Holler If Ya Hear Me,” is the new musical inspired by the lyrics of the late rapper Tupac Shakur and directed by powerhouse Kenny Leon, fresh off his win at the Tony Awards. It is not a literal telling of Tupac’s life, but rather, “a non-biographical story about friendship, family, revenge, change and hope.”
This is a huge undertaking because although Tupac Shakur’s life was cut off at 25, he was an incredibly prolific writer, rapper and poet and there was an ocean of material from which to choose. The fact that it takes a stage full — nearly thirty incredibly talented actors, singers, and dancers — to portray the inner workings of one very complex man named Tupac is a testament to the depth and staying power of his work.
It also creates challenges in making this piece come to life in a comprehensible way. In numbers like “I Get Around” versus “Keep your Head Up” you have the men sing one song and the women sing the other embodying their struggles, but the glory of Tupac’s writing is that it was the same person writing both these misogynist words and the paean to women and motherhood, just at different moments.
The book is penned by Todd Kreidler, a frequent dramaturg for August Wilson, and it is most definitely not the life of Tupac Shakur, but it might be his times. And sadly, twenty years later the situation in inner cities among people of color is not significantly changed. If anything, time has eroded some of the protections and programs available to youth in the “ghetto.”
This work is not easy to leap into. You are thrown into the lives of panoply of characters and might struggle to figure out the arc of the plot. The better route is to give yourself over to the passion, glorious talent and rich text. By the second act you will certainly have become happily immersed.
The work opens with acclaimed poet Saul Williams as a character called John; he is high above the stage tethered to a cell in an orange prison jumpsuit. Williams is normally a solo performer who holds an audience with his silver tongue and adroit delivery, but on occasion in “Holler” it feels as if the words he is rapping are pushing him too fast and they get lost. But his presence is mighty.
He is up against the singing chops of none other than Tonya Pinkins, three-time Tony nominee, possessing a voice that snaps heads in her direction and keeps them focused there until her last note.
Then there is the only “white-boy” in the hood, played by the incredible Ben Thompson whose last Broadway role was the headmistress in “Matilda;” he brings humor, pathos, a great voice and fleet dancing feet. Christopher Jackson as Vertus is a big man with a bigger voice and charm to win the ladies and fight the gangs.
His other compatriots are the equally talented Joshua Boone as Darius and Dyllon Burnside as Anthony. Saycon Sengbloh plays John’s former girl and Darius’ current love and she has a duet with Saul Williams, ” Unconditional Love,” that is heartbreakingly beautiful.
The set by Edward Pierce is a flexible cityscape enhanced by Zachary Borovay’s projections and well-lit by Mike Baldassari. The choreography by Wayne Cilento of “Wicked” moves the cast, all of whom dance, sing, leap and bring the amazing words of Tupac Shakur to audiences who have waited too long to see Tupac’s work elevated to a Broadway level.
Although this piece is flawed by some disconnect in the first act, by the time the curtain comes down the crowd is raucous, grateful and energized.
“Holler if Ya Hear Me” enjoys an extended run at The Palace Theater, 1546 Broadway in New York. For information or tickets, call 212-730-8200 or visit http://hollerifyahearme.com/