holler if ya hear me: the tupac-inspired play on broadway / "a colorful introduction to a complex individual reality that is often misunderstood"

exclusive feature
Opiyo Okeyo
{Los Angeles, CA}
The Liberator Magazine


As a fan of hip-hop, it's always bittersweet to see the art form in spaces it rarely goes. Sweet, because it tells us the art is still growing; bitter, because there’s a good chance that it’s not going to be perfect. But could searching for perfection blind us from more defining achievements?

Directed by Tony Award-nominee, Kenny Leon ("A Raisin In the Sun," "Fences," "Stick Fly") and written by Todd Kriedler ("The Heroin Diaries"), “Holler If You Hear Me” held its Broadway open on June 19th, three days after what would’ve been the 43rd birthday of the artist who inspired the script -- Tupac Shakur. One thing that Leon makes clear is, “It's not auto-biographical, it's just using his music.” Further, “It was just a matter of giving it some of the Broadway trappings without taking away from what the lyrics were saying and what the music was doing,” says Daryl Waters, music supervisor, who worked with composer Zane Mark ("Motown The Musical;" "Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk") to maintain the musical integrity behind Tupac’s catalogue.

Nonetheless, in listening to Tupac’s music and watching a theatrical interpretation of his lyrics, any fan of the genre would find it difficult to keep from contemplating the talent and tragedy of the artist. What variables gave birth to someone who can be slain as young as 25 yet still have a noticeable impact on popular culture some 20 years later?

This question, among others, fueled my curiosity as I leaned back in the prestigious Palace Theater, watching actor Saul Williams control a stage once graced by Frank Sinatra, Bette Midler, Jerry Lewis, Josephine Baker, Harry Belafonte, Liza Minnelli and Diana Ross. Where did Tupac come from? Where was he trying to go? And, is “Holler If Ya Hear Me” a sincere representation of that lyrical narrative?

If we were to take a step back into the post-civil rights era, we would have a first-hand look at a generation of black children born into a frustrating predicament. Certainly, James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud” had become an anthem and an increasing interest in acknowledging the contributions of black people would lead to a formal recognition of Black History Month by the U.S. government. Nonetheless, while the efforts and sacrifices of the civil rights movement may have eliminated legal segregation and challenged systemic racism, there was still a disproportionately large number of blacks who were impoverished, uneducated and behind bars.

The children of the '70s witnessed this and one of those children was a young Tupac. Influenced by the consciousness of a political activist -- his mother -- and the conviction of a street hustler -- his father -- this predicament was the concrete reality through which Tupac Shakur fought to blossom.

It was the logical progression of hip-hop expression in response to social conditions; a reality that gave birth to a few recurring themes in his music. These include "overstanding," self-control and a reverence for the elders.

“Holler if You Hear Me” is a colorful introduction to a complex individual reality that is often misunderstood. The play is an interpretation of Tupac’s multiplatinum single by the same name.

Saul Williams stars as John, an ex-con who has turned his back on the gang-banging lifestyle from which he came. He changes his perspective, thus overstanding the dilemma of being young and black. In a recorded phone conversation between Tupac and ex-convict-turned-community organizer, Sanyika Shakur (no relation), Sanyika introduces the concept of overstanding to Tupac. He explains it as an ability to look beyond the behavior of someone or something (understanding) and realize it’s nature, or why a person behaves as they do. Scenic designer, Edward Pierce, creatively brought this theme to life as Williams’ character entered the scene suspended over the stage, over the streets. Whether depicted in a penitentiary cell or bedroom, he is the only character metaphorically presented in a position to grasp the full picture of street life and the nature of the environment they called home ... why things were the way they were. Incarceration or time grants John a cathartic experience in which he journals and sketches in an attempt to turn inward for the answers he seeks. This change of perception toward one’s violent surroundings is one of the things that Tupac advocated during his interviews and in his later recordings. It's an attitude of survival that he exercised while incarcerated and that fueled him during his attempts to organize community-driven youth programs prior to his demise.

Tupac had a fiery speak-first-think-later personality. It was evident in his interviews and in the numerous police reports detailing his run-ins with authorities; and it was evident in his music. In one of his last interviews, he’s asked if there was any advice or wish he might part with and to that, he responds with “have self-control.” The neighborhood illustrated in “Holler If Ya Hear Me” is not unlike many communities in America where some basic needs aren’t being met. Employment is low, patience is low, and social tensions keep rising. One crew looses a loved one and the character Vertus, played by Emmy Award-winning composer Christopher Jackson ("After Midnight," "The Lion King," "Sesame Street"), must decide if the death will be avenged--something all too familiar to the world in which Tupac often describes in his music. Whether concerning gang violence, teenage pregnancy, or run-ins with the police, the streets are paved with songs of young people who become life-long prisoners to decisions they may have made in a single moment of uncontrolled emotion.

"Holler If Ya Hear Me" is co-produced by Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur along with Eric Gold ("In Living Color," Scary Movie), Chunsoo Shin, Jessica Green, Marcy Kaplan-Gold, and Anita Waxman ("The Who’s Tommy," "Dr. Zhivago The Musical," Barry Levinson’s "Diner"). It’s fitting that his mother is present in the guiding of the project. His respect for those that came before him was one of the characteristics that separated him from other artists. It’s a quality that gave him an open channel to wisdom and teachings of those from the civil rights and Black power eras. Allowing him to do his best to explore ways to pick up where previous generations left off and use his art to share what he was learning in ways that his peers could understand. Just as John looks after the elderly Street Preacher, performed by Tony Award-nominated John Earl Jelks (August Wilson’s "Radio Golf," Law & Order SVU), Pac always made a point to keep the elders close. They inspired the books he’d read, they wrote him while incarcerated, in many ways their presence helped him make sense of the world in which he was becoming a man. His bond with poet Maya Angelou on the set of Poetic Justice exemplified how empowering a young person’s connection to a senior figure can be. The same works the other way around as the late-Angelou expressed her appreciation for rappers when asked about the future of poetry. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

One of the more surprising topics that the play attempts to address are the polar realities between white and black youth. “I was trying to listen to [his] music. I was listening for story, I was listening for characters, I was listening for those ideas and attitudes about life,” shares Kriedler. He scripts in Ben Thompson (Green Day’s "American Idiot," Disney’s "High School Musical," NBC’s America’s Got Talent) as Griffy, a young white guy who is in tune enough with the streets to embrace the lingo, recreate the music, and make sense of hiring an ex-con like Williams' John. The two have connected through a mutual friend who was gunned down. In addition to sharing a neighborhood, Griffy and John are, socially, worlds apart. While Griffy inherited his father’s business, John lives check-to-check. This is something rarely mentioned in Pac’s music, however, it’s a reality that he’d learn to accept and acknowledge as a means to fueling his own efforts to generate wealth and help those around him do the same. "I have to build an empire as opposed to continue a legacy."

Griffy questions, “Why do these kids keep shooting each other?” To which Saul Williams’ character responds, “The killings aren’t a fraction of the amount of deaths white supremacy has brought for: 2 World Wars, 2 atomic bombs ... We’re all still trying to catch up--We’re competing to take care of our families!”

Saul Williams’ own career in the arts began with theater, as did Tupac’s. Considering Williams’ success as a musician, a writer, and his various other roles of artistic expression, I’d be remiss to not see this project as a warm up to the endless list of ideas he may have in store, namely merging theater and hip-hop.

One thing that made Pac special as an artist was his lack of fear to go his own way. I go down paths I haven’t gone before. When you’re watching "Holler If Ya Hear Me," you may have to remind yourself that you’re looking at a piece of art. That said, the greater achievements are found in the “little things.” For instance, using a vehicle like Broadway to tell the story of a controversial rapper, a space once accessible only to the elite. It exposes young people to another color on their palette of self-expression. The dialogue introduced in productions like this is always its own achievement. Through the discussions between friends on the block, or between a black employee and his white employer, audiences are exposed to another complex tale of what it means to be human. Musician or not, the sky’s the limit when it comes to how creative tomorrow’s artist can get once determined to perfect the world of theater.

The day Pac passed, the New York Times published a haunting quote from his lawyer, Shawn S. Chapman: "It's really unfortunate that the violent perception that the world has of that young man may be exacerbated by the way he died: art is being confused with real life ... There was this wonderful, charming, bright, talented, funny person that no one is going to get to know; they are just going to know this other side." Chapman’s concerns notwithstanding, "Holler If Ya Hear Me" and works like it are creatively tapping into ways to humanize the artists that in our own misunderstanding, we have denounced as a monster.

Maybe now we can start to look beyond the youthful antics, complexities, and imperfections, of these fallen young men, and begin to find the empathy to consider the impact they had on their communities by simply being a face for the faceless. They were early social disruptors. Walking through New York’s Time Square and seeing the marquee that premiered the greatest film in American History, Orson Welles’ "Citizen Kane" now illuminate the name Tupac Shakur; it drives home a message among those that look like Pac or personally connected with his music. A message that said (1) your voice matters and (2) your story is valuable, and in combining the two, you can make a difference.

"Holler If Ya Hear Me" also stars Tony Award-winner, Tonya Pinkins (Days of Our Lives).

Musical Numbers (Track list):

My Block
Dopefiend’s Diner
Life Goes On
I Get Around/Keep Ya Head Up
I Ain’t Mad at Cha
Please Wake Me When I’m Free/The Rose That Grew From Concrete
Me Against The World
Whatz Next
Dear Mama
Holler If Ya Hear Me
Resist the Temptation
Hail Mary
Unconditional Love
If I Die 2Nite
Only God Can Judge Me
Thugz Mansion
California Love
Ghetto Gospel

Submissions: scripts at liberatormagazine.com

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