Holler if Ya Hear Me

Palace Theatre
New York, NY
At the Palace Theatre, with its orchestra newly reconfigured into stadium seating, an energetic top-grade cast sings the songs of Tupac Shakur (1971-1996), a man shaded with controversy and contradictions.  He was accused of gang-rape, drug-dealing and murder, and his music reflects this culture.  Holler if Ya Hear Me, directed by Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun), now presents the world through Tupac's songs to a Broadway audience.  While lyrics are often hard to discern, the show shivers with vitality and an urgent plea emerges, "If you take the time to hear me, maybe you can cheer me."  It's worth paying attention.

Not a biography about Tupac's life, the story is a slim conglomeration by Todd Kreidler about a neighborhood of individuals.  While the characters are lightly drawn, there is a universality to their complexities, fears, passions and frustrations interacting with police brutality, teen pregnancy in a culture of frustration and violence in a poverty-stricken Midwest industrial city.  Tupac's gospel is polarizing with in-your-face rap lyrics sung over a hip-hop beat, a gospel still unifying for those struggling with class and social inequality.  While Kreidler's story is predictable, it tells the tale through Tupac's songs, climaxing with a gang war and foreseeable death.

Stepping to the front of the 22-person cast is spoken-word poet Saul Williams as John, a stand-in for Tupac.  He is tense, wiry, and charismatic, just released from prison and clinging to his new views on life and morality.  John reunites with old friend Vertus (Christopher Jackson from In the Heights), striving to find his own different path after a life of violence and drug-dealing.  One of Kreidler's most vivid characterization is Vertus' mother, played by Tonya Pinkins, singing with lush passion and touching in her small role.  Sayon Senobloh (Motown The Musical) plays Vertus' long-suffering girlfriend, Corinne, and among various other neighbors, John Earl Jenks plays a street preacher pleading for peace, and Brian Griffin, a white mechanic.

Wayne Cilento's stylings of break-dance come from the '80s to the present.  Tupac's songs move with a sharp tempo and strong beat under the musical direction by Daryl Waters (Bring in da Noise, Bring In da Funk).  While it can be difficult discerning all the full, emotional rap lyrics, some stand out.  At the top of the show, "My Block" ignites the whole production and sets it moving, and the title song ending Act One thunders with anger.  "Dear Mama" is Vertus' simple statement of love and respect to his mother.  Two friends sing of their life in the hood, Corinne's "Please wake me when I'm free/ I cannot bear captivity" and from one of Tupac's poems, her friend sings, "Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else even cared."

John makes it clear that his music is a symptom of the culture of overburdened working class frustration, it is not the cause. Demanding attention about inner city life and tragedy, his "Ghetto Gospel" states:

"When you wipe your eyes, see it clearly
there's no need for you to fear me
if you take your time to hear me, maybe you can learn to cheer me
it ain't about black or white, cause we're human
I hope we see the light before its ruined...My ghetto gospel"

Holler if Ya Hear Me is a raw statement for those looking for Broadway shows with something to say and new ways to say it.

(Photo: by Joan Marcus)

Elizabeth Ahlfors
Cabaret Scenes
June 16, 2014