Photographs by Joan Marcus
Once upon a time a long time ago in 1973,
when a fat, smug country called the U.S.A was being upended with riots and
protests about a perfectly natural condition which they had finally legislated
in 1964 called Civil Rights, a beautiful baby boy named Lesane Parish Crooks
was born. His mother and his father being lock step radicals infused with rage
against injustices which caged and demeaned them, flouted all the white man’s
laws, rules, regulations they could, bringing on white man’s punishments for
perceived misdeeds and irregularities and, of course, thus multiplying passions
and hatreds. People stopped seeing people as people. All was Causes. And
little Lesane absorbed everything, because he was not only beautiful, he was
And rebellious. It came with the
territory. The black streets. The black gutters. The black rage. The black
gangs. He became Tupac Shakur early on in respect of an honored rebel. And in
his acting out, he molded himself not only on the Black Panther ideals of his
parents but on black gangsta street ideals of jails and guns as rites of
passage. He also beat anybody else at a new competition: rapping. He could
rap faster and better and harder than any other kid. Only kids were rapping;
too bad it wasn’t against the law; still, you could say anything, anything at
all as long as it rhymed and drove its message with a compelling rhythm.
Everybody wanted to hear Tupac riff. He even got recorded. Main street media
was not impressed.
Until he sold. And sold. Once Tupac made
money, he was gold. Better: platinum, again and again. 77 million pieces.
That’s staggering. If there had been a sensible bone remaining in his body it
was melted. He went wild. Rap went wild, went hip-hop. Young black talents
burst forth sparking the money machines and their wares were exploited as fast
and as hard as possible. Soon, there were young black millionaires palling
around. And soon, there were young black millionaires exploiting each other,
like rap competitions only with lots of zeros. And since they all came out of
the gangsta streets, it wasn’t long before they were shooting each other. And
dying. Only a few cooler heads figured out that they couldn’t take it with them
if they were dead. Tupac lasted until he was 25 years old.
His lyrics live on, and they’re the basis
of Holler If Ya Hear Me, his very own words, now a Broadway musical.
The irony is not lost on his fans. First off: there’s no musical score. How is
it going to survive as a musical on Broadway even if they treat it like a
musical and call it a musical? Only shows that produce revenue survive on
Broadway, no matter how good you are. Goodness has nothing to do with it.
Look around. The most revenue producing shows in town are works of marketing
art. They’ve survived mediocre reviews to live and burgeon with the loving
care they command, a new mystique created. There’s a very strong likelihood
that that can happen with Holler because in spite of top flight Broadway
talents working their spells and incantations Holler If Ya Hear Me, the
show, is so on its knees before the golden idol that is Tupac that it forgot to
do the most important thing: be true to its roots and rebel against the
Broadway wise ones. The producers know this – it’s obvious – but they went
ahead anyway, straddling, hoping that the Tupac legend would carry them
through, and that is a valid hope. You cannot ignore 77 million pieces.
The story of the show, created by
playwright Todd Kreidler, attempts to use Tupac lyrics to tell the oft told
tale of a black ghetto young man outside the system rising and changing himself
by joining the system. Vertus (Christopher Jackson) deals drugs to live,
dreaming of finally doing one last big deal to make enough to get out of the
life he’s in, which is all he knows. His friend, John (Saul Williams) has just
been released from prison after six years, embittered, enraged, determined not
to go back to the streets and crime. But who’d give a black ex-con a job?
Griffy would. Griffy (excellent Ben Johnson) the only white in the entire
area, has a fenced, locked, guarded business where wrecked cars are taken in.
“We buy shit”, is his joke,, “and make money out of it.” The same age as
Vertus, he is running his dying father’s business. He knows these people; they
know him. Inside his fence is some protection. And a job for John.
Vertus’s brother is killed. It’s a gang
action. And young teen hothead Darius (Joshua Boone), lusts and loudmouths for
revenge, ready to get a gun, go to jail, join the men. It sounds good to
younger, drifting Anthony (Dyllon Burnside) alone, no guidance, no direction.
He looks to Vertus. Also drifting through the show, the women, splendid Tonya
Pinkins, wasted as Vertus’s mother, lovely Saycon Sengbloh, as his lover. And
then, the roving, mad preacher who doesn’t preach, fine John Earl Jelks.
By now, you’ve seen the familiar story
shape and you have heard the Tupac lyrics worked into the story line the
Broadway way with a melody and a vibrating band beat, as well as the Tupac way,
passionately screamed by Saul Williams as John, whose ferocity and sincerity
overwhelm the words except for some rhymes, always with strong rhythmics. The
words? Lost in the rush. The sense? Body language and passion in the voice
which you assume is inspired by the words you can’t decipher. Ah well, that’s
hip-hop, that’s rap, that’s the style. That’s what sells.
Occasionally, in one or more of the Tupac
“songs” the words are treated as dialogue, are performed, their rhymes in place
but not punched as in rap, the rhythms close to speech, not pounded one another
into rap shape. This half treatment devised for the show allows Tony award
winning director Kenny Leon to stage each Tupac “song” in as fluid an action
stream as possible. And so he gives wizard Wayne Cilento the nod to stage the
clever musical arrangements Daryl Waters devises to carry the lyrics into these
staged Broadway numbers with lots of amazingly gifted female dancers and some
extraordinary male “break” dancers and the show moves. It’s a “Musical”, for
Pete’s sake, using all the bells and whistles, using David Gallo’s designs for
Edward Pierce’s evocative scenery, using Mike Baldassari’s lighting with
Zachary Borovay’s sweeping production design, Reggie Ray’s costumes (including
an inside joke) and on and on.
Even the theater itself, the Palace
Theater, has had its interior reshaped for this show, the old seats intact;
over them, bleachers installed to regroup audiences into stadium seating. Big
money. Just remember those 77 million pieces and that potential for renewed
revenue stream. Tupac is worth the shot. But you have to ask yourself, is it
about Tupac? Is it about his messages? Is it about hip hop, rap? You’ll know
Oh, that inside joke? One of the cast
members, Otis Cotton, wears a Sean John jumpsuit. In an earlier incarnation,
when he was not yet Sean John, he and Tupac did not have a salubrious
relationship. But he changed his name and was smart enough to move away from
guns. And he’s alive. That’s the joke.
Holler If Ya Hear Me.
At the Palace
Theatre, 1564 Broadway, near 47th Street.