Last weekend two of the things that are near and dear to my heart melded together: Broadway and the music of Tupac Shakur. You see, I entered my adulthood during the time that Tupac took his place in the world of rap. So when I heard that there was a Broadway play based on his music, I had to see it. The show did not disappoint me.
Holler if You Hear Me is an original story written by Todd Kriedler based on the lyrics and poetry of Tupac Shakur. It is not a biographical story, yet there are definitely elements of the main character John (played by the phenomenal spoken word artist Saul Williams) that touch upon the struggles that gripped Shakur during his short and tumultuous life. The title of the show is taken from a song on Pac’s 1993 album. The storyline and lyrics to the songs in the show were pulled from the lyrics of his albums and combined with his poetry from the book The Rose that Grew from Concrete.
Holler if You Hear Me had elements of West Side Story, Rent, In the Heights, and even Do the Right Thing (which I could see being adapted for the stage). The reason I mention Do the Right Thing is because some the characters and their motivations were similar. There was the constant tug-o-war between life and death, dark and light, and good and evil in this play. John, a former convict who is trying to turn his life around in his old neighborhood keeps getting pulled back into the wrong crowd after the untimely death of his neighborhood pal Benny. John’s father (played by John Earl Jelks of Radio Golf) plays a street preacher who weaves in and out of the story as the voice of morality. While his role is small he threads the scenes together and plays a pivotal role in the storyline.
The show brings to light the socio-political ills of our society and humanizes the people who are affected by them. There are heartwarming scenes like when Vertus (played by Christopher Jackson) lovingly serenades his mother (played by the incomparable stage and screen veteran Tonya Pickins) with the Tupac classic “Dear Mama.” Then there is a jump to your feet party scene during the West Coast anthem “California Love” replete with a tricked out purple Caddy.
The show was directed by Kenny Leon of A Raisin in the Sun and Fences and it had good pacing and a nice balance between the dialogue and musical scenes. The choreography was executed well by the ensemble and the music is true to the genre. Saul Williams spit Pac’s lyrics with furious passion, while Saycon Sengbloh (of Motown The Musical, and Fela ) carried the show with her sweet melodic voice.
It was invigorating to see so much young talent on a Broadway stage doing what they love and having a great time doing it. While there have been other attempts to infuse hip hop into Broadway, I would say that this is the first true hip hop show to grace the Great White Way. The closest show that I know of to successfully embody hip hop as a musical was an off-Broadway musical called Ghetto Chronicles written, choreographed, and directed by D-Whit.
Holler if You Hear Me opened a week ago on June 19, yet it is challenged with finding the right audience to fill the seats. After all, this isn’t your typical Disney inspired family-friendly musical. If you love Tupac and hip hop in general you need to buy your tickets today. Don’t wait until tomorrow. This show needs true hip hop heads and lovers of spoken word and poetry to show support.
Holler if You Hear Me is playing at the Palace Theater 1564 Broadway at 47th Street. http://www.HollerIfYaHearMe.com