Theatre Review: Tupac Play Pleasant Broadway Surprise
July 9, 2014By Andre Barracks

The lines between art (in its various forms) and life are often blurred, causing one to wonder if both represent reality. Hip hop music is regarded as an expression of America’s urban youth and their outlook on the world. Tupac Amaru Shakur was a prolific lyricist, poet, and an acclaimed actor. The mid-nineties saw the rise of Tupac’s stardom in the hip hop world; his music was declarative of his internal and external struggles. The world got a clear view of Tupac’s past and present through his music. And even 18 years after his death, many of the messages are still relevant today.

The Broadway musical Holler If Ya Hear Me inspired by the music of Tupac Shakur breathes new life into the late rapper’s work and legacy. The play is an adaptation of the book by Todd Kriedler and is directed by Kenny Leon. Holler If Ya Hear Me premiered on June 19th at New York’s Palace Theatre, in the heart of Broadways Theatre district. The musical's premise chronicles John, an ex-convict returning home after serving a six year prison sentence. The character of John is played by Saul Williams, an accomplished poet, lecturer, and actor who holds a MFA from the NYU Tisch School of the Arts.

The producers of Holler If Ya Hear Me ventured outside of the box to effectively combine the appreciation of hip hop, the message of the musical, and the conventions of Broadway. The National Museum of Hip Hop collaborated with the play to transform the space into a partial hip hop exhibit. When patrons enter the theater, they are greeted by various vintage photos of hip hop pioneers and memorabilia.

A large graffiti mural encompasses the wall, signifying the section that was transformed to do the exhibit. An interactive portion of the exhibit consists of two large blackboards with "My Dream is..." written on them. The exhibit supplies chalk so patrons can fill in the blanks with their personal dreams.

The exhibit sets an excellent tone for one to approach the musical in an air of hope. The opening scene of Holler If Ya Hear Me finds our lead John in his jail cell just before he was released, penning his thoughts. The musical number entitled "My Block” gives us a glimpse of the surroundings John used to call home.

The set design is gritty and takes a minimalist approach to creating scenes. John's cell hung suspended from the ceiling while his block took shape below him. The music is very funk-infused with excellent orchestration, capturing the essence of the urban community. We are introduced to many of the common characters intertwined with John's life, as he returns to the block he once knew. An old preacher is a staple on John's block, equipped with a megaphone to proclaim his messages from God.

John's fame is legendary, noted by the admiring youngsters who tell of how they looked up to him before he got sentenced and still see him as a "general.” John, however, is a changed man, often repeating that he wants life to be "real simple.” He garners a job at a local auto body repair shop on the referral of an old time friend named Benny. We meet Benny earlier who tells one of the young people his dream of moving out west to start a business. Dreaming -- it was a common theme carried throughout the play, all from different angles. We learn that all dreams are not necessarily positive aspirations, expressed in characters as the play progresses.

Vertus, played by Christopher Jackson, has assumed the position of running the block, while John did his time in prison. Vertus is a true street hustler, finding different ways to scheme and get money without resorting to senseless violence. In the world thatJohn and Vertus exist, a show of strength must always be in place to maintain your respect and for you to not to appear soft. Vertus is also Benny's little brother.

Tupac's music identified with people like Vertus and John, those who are in the perpetual struggle in the hood facing grim circumstances. The next two musical numbers "Dopefiend's Diner" and "Life Goes On" bear witness to the murders of innocent bystanders, one of whom was a little girl. The hopelessness that is seen in the neighborhood is heartbreaking, themes evident in Tupac's music. The play cleverly infuses societal commentary throughout the production as Tupac rapped about many things he saw firsthand.

John's goal of attaining a simple life is swiftly complicated one night both John and Vertus are at a crossroads. The women in their lives step in. John's love interest Corinne encourages John to do what is right while Vertus' mother (Mrs. Weston) makes it known "All I ever wanted for you was to be good.”

The current tension in the play are perfect segues to some of Tupac's most poignant songs. The musical director along with the band did an excellent job reworking Tupac's songs to flow seamlessly within the production. "I Aint Mad at Cha" is performed by Vertus and John, symbolizing their past and present relationship. One of Tupac's most notable poems, "The Rose That Grew From Concrete," is performed by Corinne, while "Dear Mama" is performed by Vertus. The close of Act One ends with high energy as John performs the title piece "Holler If Ya Hear Me" along with Anthony, Darius and the My Block Chorus.

As one watches John's development within the play, it speaks to the clear effect that jail can have on the psyche of a young black man. The years behind bars can change a person's perspective on life forever. At one point in the play John exclaims, "I died in jail!” The inner struggle is one Tupac was well acquainted with and chronicled in his music. John's life in "Holler If Ya Hear Me" draws many parallels with the inspiration behind the play. Saul Williams did an excellent job capturing the passion that was Tupac in his performance.

Overall, the casting was well done with a healthy mixture of experienced actors and novices. A few of the males within the My Block Chorus may have overacted in their attempt to be urban, thus their performance came off a bit too rehearsed and unnatural. Although Holler If Ya Hear Me is based off of Tupac's music, some form of warning should be made as to the excessive use of expletives within the production. You may have to shield young audiences from this Broadway show, folks. The director stayed true to the intended muse's character, yet the content may take regular Broadway patrons by surprise.

Tupac's catalog of music vary in range of emotion and content. He was not a one dimensional artist, which is why he appealed to so many. A few of his most notable songs were also performed in the play "I Get Around," "Keep Ya Head Up,” "California Love,” "Changes,” "Thugz Mansion,” "Hail Mary,” and "Ghetto Gospel.” The use of lights and visual projections enhanced the scenery and backgrounds for the play to a tee. The crew did a wonderful job being creative with their props. This was a rousing theatrical tribute to a gifted mind gone way too soon.

"When you wipe your eyes see it clearly
There's no need for you to fear me
If you take your time and hear me
Maybe you can learn to cheer me
It ain't about black or white cause we human
I hope we see the light before it's ruined,

-Ghetto Gospel

Visitor Comments (2)
My take home message
Posted By MOHAWTHORNE on July 12, 2014
I went to the show with my husband last week and we had a great time. The only complaint as mentioned in your article is the foul language. The singers were fantastic, the dancing, the acting and music were phenomenal and stayed true to "theater" and "hip hop" simultaneously. I would go again and recommend this play to others. The walk-away message is if you live by the gun you die by the gun. Like many others returning to your neighborhood after a mindset change in jail can be counterproductive. In order for one to succeed it might be best to change your atmosphere indefinitely.

Well written and descriptive review of the musical, Andre.
Hollering back!
Posted By RVCON2 on July 11, 2014
I love this show! Have watched it 3x and counting. The show is phenomenal I leave singing a different song every time I leave.
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