Holler If Ya Hear Me

Tupac Shakur is one of the most prolific hip-hop artists, garnering even more success and attention posthumously than he did in his brief life. (He would have been only 43 this year.) He’s also a poet and master storyteller, which makes him a natural fit for theatre. And Broadway will be richer for having his voice in the canon.

Holler If Ya Hear Me is a non-biographical musical that features music by the late rapper (I suppose you could call it a jukebox musical, but I think a mix tape musical is more apropos), with music supervision, orchestrations and arrangements by Daryl Waters and a book by Todd Kreidler. From a dramaturge’s perspective, Holler is plagued by some of the same pitfalls of other jukebox musicals: The book is often weak, feeling as if it’s written not to serve the story but to get to the next hit song. Which is not to say that the characters populating Holler are simply jibber-jabbering on stage; indeed, it seems that many of the conversations had on “the block” could easily be conversations Tupac had with his friends 25 years ago, inspiring him to write what we hear on stage.

However, in Tony winner Kenny Leon’s production (with musical staging and choreography by Wayne Cilento), Kreidler’s book is doesn’t find its focus until too late in the first act. It is difficult to discern who each character is and what their relationships are to one another. It’s even more difficult to pinpoint the central conflict and the “I want.” For much of the first act, it is unclear what the protagonists are after and why, and what obstacles are in their way. This makes it difficult for audiences to care much for the characters, other than their general compassion for fellow human beings or to assuage their liberal guilt. And that’s a terrible position to be in; this shouldn’t elicit pity but rather empathy and maybe even a sense of pride.

That sense of pride, however late in the game it comes, is why this important. With more than a few moments reminiscent of West Side Story (like all the street kids singing out their battle cry before a rumble), as well as Spike Lee’s seminal Do the Right Thing, Holler If Ya Hear Me needs to be part of the Broadway lexicon because it’s a chance for people to see themselves on stage. Just like in West Side Story, where the kids “dance like they gotta get rid of something,” and in the exuberance of NY Export: Opus Jazz before that, there’s something burning in these folks, leaders John (a passionate Saul Williams) and Vertus (the contemplative Christopher Jackson (In the Heights, Lonely I'm Not), ladies Corinne (Saycon Sengbloh (Hair, Fela!)) and Mrs. Weston (Tonya Pinkins (Milk Like Sugar)), and the whole “My Block Chorus,” among others.

Leon’s direction is mostly effective. Even though we don’t really know whom to root for and why until the final moments of act one, Leon prepares us for the act-ending number by slowly building tension, having characters stew until, finally, they can’t take it any longer and they explode (into song, of course). (I do wish that the lighting design (by Mike Baldassari) during this and some other pivotal moments had been a little less slick, a little less boy band-ish.) Act two is strong because the lines have been drawn and the stakes are set. Again, Leon paces the action for maximum emotional impact, and by the time the show comes to an end, you can’t help but feel more aware and more alive.

The fact that Tupac’s music is being used in a Broadway musical is a big deal. It is going to bring in people who’ve never seen a Broadway show and, hopefully, encourage them to express themselves, maybe like poet/artist John. And it’s going to expose the typically staid Broadway audience to what’s happening now. Holler is set “NOW” on “MY BLOCK.” The lives lived by John, Vertus, Corinne and their brethren are full of color, community and love, but also fear, coercion and uncertainty. They are part of our national community and so they must be part of our artistic representation.

(Pro-tip: I didn’t catch every single word uttered in song, which is a shame because Tupac was a poet. I recommend familiarizing yourself with—at least—the songs featured in Holler so that when you see this, you can appreciate every last syllable.)

Holler If Ya Hear Me is now playing at the Palace Theatre. Visit hollerifyahearme.com for more information and to purchase tickets. Make sure you check out the "Bios" section to learn about the wonderfully talented company, which also includes American Idiot costars Ben Thompson and Christina Sajous, as well as John Earl Jelks.