A few years ago, on June 16, two days before my actual birthday, I took to my Facebook status to say this “Happy birthday to the greatest, Tupac Shakur”. Later that night, my roommate who was going through a bit of a rap resurgence ever since I had moved in a year earlier, asked me candidly “So you think 2pac is the greatest rapper ever?”. I paused and I thought about my words for a long time and eventually replied “No, not rapper, he’s just, the greatest. The greatest artist, the greatest figure” . I felt like this because loving Tupac, to me, represented everything that is right about loving hip hop. To me his impact was transcendent, he was/is someone who’s merits, musically and socially could be upheld to any who would argue against or be ignorant to the positive aspects of a culture that we love so much and means so much to many of us.
So it’s with this perspective that I first learned that a full on musical based on the life and work of one Tupac Amaru Shakur, would be coming to Broadway of all places. In fact the show, which officially opened yesterday on June 19, is playing right in the heart of Times Square at The Palace Theatre. In so many ways, I was excited, proud and content with the idea that a potentially culture shifting piece of art would be based off the work and life of Tupac. The play as it was first announced was not a bio on Shakur, and it was said that there would be no actual “2pac” character. Overall though I worried, like so many often do when something they love so much is taken into a different sphere, especially without the direct involvement of the original artist; is this really a good idea?
As someone who’s biggest interest is anything “done really well”, I worried would this production live up to typical standards; not just the “well it’s good for what it is” mentality. The fact that this year’s Tony Award winning director Kenny Leon (for his production of Raisin In The Sun) was at the helm as the director of Holler if Ya Hear Me, definitely boded well. Months later when musician/poet/all around awesome individual Saul Williams – who is classically trained, but still new to major Broadway works – was cast to play the lead role in the production, it definitely gave me another sense of “this may actually end up pretty dope”. That being said, I still heavily curbed my expectations in anticipation of seeing something that intrinsically meant so much to me, as well as countless others.
It seemed almost serendipitous that the night before seeing Holler I came across a newly released, unheard phone recording of Shakur and a friend speaking candidly. What made it so exceptional is that it was almost a nut shell of who fans hoped and knew him to be; passionate, brutally honest, real and overall with great intentions especially as it related to helping those less fortunate. I recommend listening to the conversation as an almost pre-requisite to seeing the play, especially if you’re somewhat unfamiliar with Tupac.
When the first musical number began, I truly wasn’t ready. Similar to the way emotion suddenly overcame me when I sat watching my only sister who had nearly died early in my childhood, get married to the man she loved; a wave of feeling suddenly splashed across my entire being. As I sat and watched different characters alternate saying the lyrics to the song “My Block”- a song which innocuously first appeared on a 1995 soundtrack for the film The Show, and then was later re-worked into and much more widely known, guitar driven track for Shakur’s posthumous album “Better Dayz” in 2002 – I maintained those indescribable goosebumps you get only when something is REALLY good, for over a minute straight. This wouldn’t be the last time I felt this way either.
The story focuses on a neighborhood, and the people within it. John (Saul Williams) is an ex-con returning home to his block with 2 strikes, determined to avoid his third strike (a concept that is mentioned in the lyrics of the aforementioned “My Block” song) by working to make a honest living at the neighborhood auto repair shop run by Griffy (Ben Thompson), the guitar playing son and soon to be owner of the shop. Thompson is also the play’s only non-African American cast member. Another important figure in the play is Vertus (Christopher Jackson) the neighborhood tough guy gangster who seems constantly torn between the streets and something more. He is also the third part of a love triangle involving female lead Corinne (Saycon Sengbloh) and John whom she was involved with before his incarceration.
The plot itself is by no means profound and much like many musicals is more about presenting a layout for the music numbers to achieve their full glory. Regardless, writer Todd Kreidler found a way to lay down a foundation for a story and characters that allow each actor to individually represent a different and specific aspect of Shakur, whose essence and spirit is unequivocally the star of the show. The man who, peer and part time adversary Arsenio Hall recently described as “a unique contradiction” surely had many sides, as often Gemini’s do. I mention this because being a multifaceted Gemini was a fairly common topic in 2pac’s music. In fact it’s because of our shared June birth bond and subsequent personality similarities, that I pay some if any attention to astrology at all.
As a fan of 2pac the play contains so many great moments, from the grand spectacle of seeing “Hail Mary” carried out as a Broadway number, to subtle lyrical hints that appear within the non-musical dialogue, for example “man, picture my mom rollin’ in that car”, or the constant alluding to one of Shakur’s most well known and relevant songs “Changes”. With so many first time viewers already knowing the words, the potential for a sing along/crowd participation like environment presents a possibly interesting dynamic. I imagine seeing the show on the right night could easily turn the Palace Theatre into something more along the lines of a concert rather than a poetry reading. This idea which doesn’t seem exactly run of the mill for a Broadway play could potentially lead to the production becoming something special and unique in the lexicon of theatre.
Not to type cast you the reader, but chances are if you’re a frequenter of TheSource.com or a lover of hip hop and incredible personalities, you will definitely enjoy this play. If you’re any kind of 2pac fan, seeing Holler If Ya Hear Me needs to be at the very top of your to do list.
Tickets are on sale HERE.
Check back in the next week for our exclusive interview with Saul Williams.