Entertainment

06.17.14

Broadway’s Rebel, Tellin’ You to Hear It: A Portrait of Saul Williams

The mainstream Tupac musical Holler If Ya Hear Me is, in some ways, an act of defiance for the poet-actor-musician Saul Williams. Artists, after all, are here to disturb the peace.

Saul Williams, wearing a tattered long-sleeve shirt, his short dreads tilting off the right side of his head, is looking at a black-and-white photo of the late writer James Baldwin. The picture is leaning on the corner shelf inside Williams’s third-floor dressing room, tucked away in the south side of the Palace Theater in midtown Manhattan. In the photo, Baldwin is staring longingly into the camera, his eyes like two giant marbles, his chin resting in his hand.

“I don’t know if I have to read Baldwin right now,” says Williams, as he continues to gaze at the picture. “I feel like I sleep in the bed of Baldwin. I’ve read so much. So now I just look at him and everything comes at this point.”

Below Baldwin’s portrait are two paintings Williams did himself. One is of Tupac, the other of Miles Davis. Both are filled with vibrant blues, greens, yellows, and reds––a cornucopia of color, as varied as the additional artists and authors he’s selected to accompany him in his dressing room, from Allen Ginsberg to August Wilson to Howard Zinn. They’re all here to help inspire him and keep him occupied as he prepares for a new chapter in his constantly shifting oeuvre. This time, it’s for the lead in a Broadway musical called Holler If Ya Hear Me, a production that many have referred to as the “Tupac Musical.” But that’s a bit of a misnomer. The show, opening June 19, is not about the late rapper’s life. There is no character named Tupac, nor is there a Suge, a Dre, a Snoop, an Afeni, or a Biggie. Instead, Holler If Ya Hear Me is its own tale, one soundtracked by Tupac’s music. At the center of it all is Williams, a 42-year-old actor, poet, and activist.

Williams is a seasoned performer. He’s recited poems on thousands of stages, from the Sydney Opera House to London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall; released four full-length albums and five books; and collaborated with the likes of Trent Reznor and Rick Rubin. But Holler If Ya Hear Me is his first Broadway musical. The casting choice by Tony Award-winner Kenny Leon speaks to the magnitude of Williams’ previous work. Normally, if you’re casting a virgin Broadway lead, you go for a big-name actor who can sell tickets. While Williams may have a wealth of experience on stage and in front of the camera, he’s never been considered mainstream. (He’s had bit roles in major movies, like Lackawanna Blues and K-PAX, and one of his songs showed up in a now-infamous Nike commercial from 2008, but that’s about it.) The casting itself—and Williams’s acceptance of the show—has a rebelliousness to it, bringing to mind the words of Baldwin: “Artists are here to disturb the peace.”

***

Saul Williams was born in 1972 in Newburgh, New York. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father was a preacher. (Legend has it that his mom went into labor while at a James Brown concert.) Williams was interested in acting from an early age. Growing up outside New York City, he would often travel to Manhattan with his mother to watch some of the biggest shows of the era.

“I saw everything on Broadway in the ’80s,” says Williams, “so it’s always been something I’ve been connected to.”

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Holler If Ya Hear Me (Joan Marcus)

Even before he was a teenager, Williams harbored dreams of being an actor. His goal was always to perform at Shakespeare in the Park, a production done each summer at the Public Theater. Williams continued to pursue that goal after high school, studying acting at Morehouse College in Atlanta, and then at New York University, in the Graduate Acting program at Tisch. At NYU, Williams finally felt like he was in his element—a place where he could study acting for 12 hours a day.

“I remember Saul as a very charismatic actor with a highly individual style and a poetic soul,” says Ron Van Lieu, a teacher of Williams’ at NYU and the current acting chair of the Yale School of Drama. Van Lieu, however, admits that the rigors of college may not have always coexisted with his student’s individuality. “I don't know that he was always happy with the rather narrowly prescribed curriculum of a classical theater training program,” he says. “There was a lack of opportunity for him to express his own unique artistry. Of course, many young artists find themselves through rebellion against the status quo.”

For Williams, that rebellion came through poetry and music. He soon began performing at open mic nights in the East Village. In 1996, after graduating, he was crowned the Nuyorican Poets Cafe’s Grand Slam Champion, which opened up even more avenues, and led to his role in Slam, an indie film that he helped co-write.

“I stand on the corner of the block slangin’ Amethyst Rocks / Drinkin’ 40s of mother earth’s private nectar stock dodging cops,” Williams’ character, Ray, screams in one of the movie’s most memorable sequences. The poetry, written by Williams himself, was raw and energetic. It had a rhythm that stuck to your bones.

“Saul’s poetry is in an elite class,” says Sonja Sohn, Williams’s co-star in Slam, who went on to star as Kima Greggs in HBO’s The Wire. “A lot of people miss what he’s saying because they don’t know where he’s pulling stuff from. You’ve got to know history, you’ve got to know Egyptian mysticism, you’ve got to know Dogon cosmology, you’ve got to know African-American history and literature, you’ve got to know so much to actually read into all of Saul’s work. He cross-pollinates references like no one I know, and then can still give it to you in a way where you can jump on the bike and ride it.”

‘Oh c’mon, they’re gonna cast Will Smith. The fuck do they care about authenticity?’

Slam went on to win the Grand Jury Prize for a Dramatic Film at the Sundance Film Festival, as Williams seemed poised to move to the next level of his acting career. However, he never did. While the number of roles he was offered increased, the parts and projects always felt like insults, more about the paycheck than the art.

“The number of opportunities I had to play drug dealers or detectives was absurd,” he says, matter-of-factly. “It was not necessarily work to sink my teeth into. And that kind of freaked me out, because I always loved acting, and the so-called opportunities that came were opportunities just to make money. But because of my publishing and speaking engagements and recording, I was making money.”

By then, Williams had moved down a different path. Soon enough, Rick Rubin was calling about producing Williams’s first album, Amethyst Rock Star.

“My life was hijacked by music and poetry,” he says with a smile. “In a cool way. In a very cool way.”

***

Williams first got a call about Holler If Ya Hear Me in April. It was 5 p.m. on a Thursday. The casting agent asked him whether he was interested in auditioning for the role the next morning. But Williams had a show that night, with the poet Carolyn Forché, and said he would only be able to give them a cold reading.

Williams wasn’t sure about the idea of a Tupac Broadway musical in the first place. At that point, he was mostly jaded about the industry, equating it to the Hollywood nonsense he had scraped the surface of years earlier. What does a major Broadway production care about getting Tupac right? he thought. What do they care about his music and his message? Williams mostly saw the audition invite as lip service.

“I was very much like ‘Oh, c’mon, they’re gonna cast Will Smith. The fuck do they care about authenticity?’” says Williams. “Not to say that he’s not authentic in the roles that he plays, but, you know what I mean?”

Though Williams was asked to audition the next day, the crew eventually pushed it back; Williams wouldn’t be seen until Friday the following week. However, the time he spent in between proved to be beneficial, as he began crawling through Tupac’s catalog, listening to old songs and dissecting his lyrics. His re-acquaintance with Pac, along with the few pages of the script he’d been handed, helped illuminate the show’s potential. “The first big surprise was they didn’t take any of the ‘niggas’ and the ‘motherfuckers’ out,” Williams says of the story. “So I was like ‘Fuck yeah, that’s what I am talking about.’”

By the time the audition came, he was hooked.

“I told [my wife], ‘I think I am in a position right now that if I don’t get it, it’s going to fuck me up.’ And I never wanted to be in that position,” says Williams. “I had a week to prepare. And by that time I am thinking ‘Who the fuck else are they gonna choose?’‘

He never got a chance to find out. The Monday after he auditioned, Leon asked Williams if wanted to play the role of John, a recently released prisoner who returns to his Midwest hometown and attempts to reintegrate himself into the community. When he heard the news, he did what any human being who’s just reached a lifelong career milestone would do. He cried.

***

One of the many books Williams keeps with him in his dressing room is called Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which is described as “the first comprehensive, up-to-date atlas” of the 350-year history of slavery. It’s a large, detailed book, featuring hundreds of maps and lists recounting the path of the millions of kidnapped Africans who were brought in ships across the ocean. Of all the books he has on hand, Williams seems most enamored with this one.

“Every country where slaves came from, how many died on the ships, where they went in the Americas—we thought we didn’t have this stuff. Turns out we have all of it,” says Williams, as he flips through the pages. “And no one has seen it because this book has gotten no press in America. I have it here really for the people who come through, just so they can see it.”

Williams himself has spent plenty of time in Africa. In 1994, he traveled with his mother around the continent. While they were in Gambia, the country experienced a coup d’état. Williams and his mother were told to seek shelter with the American ambassador. However, instead of protection, they encountered hostility.

“I was there with the delegation of African-American teachers, and the CIA guy opened the door and was like ‘May I help you?’ And we were like ‘We’re American, we’re supposed to come here,’” recalls Williams. “He said, ‘Oh, well if I knew you guys were coming I would have put all the grits out the pantry.’ And we said, ‘Fuck you,’ and went back to our place.”

That revolutionary state of mind went hand-in-hand with Tupac’s message––an unwillingness to bow down to racists and hypocrites. Williams already understood the power of Tupac before he went overseas (that power was bolstered by the fact that images of Pac were all around Africa when Williams was there). While at Morehouse, Williams met the daughter of Assata Shakur. Assata, a former Black Panther currently on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List for her role in the murder of two New Jersey state troopers, was the sister of Tupac’s stepfather, Mutulu Shakur. Williams had read Assata Shakur’s biography when he was 18, but had never made the family connection until he got to school.

“When I realized more about his family around that time, then I really started paying attention,” says Williams. “This guy, his parents were Black Panthers. So when he talks about the criminal justice system, it’s not just because he’s been to prison, he’s learned extensively what has happened… That’s someone who’s reading the fuck out of a book and understanding extensively what Howard Zinn is talking about or Noam Chomsky or any of these characters... I was always enamored by [Tupac]. I thought he was brilliant.”

Like Tupac, Williams has spoken extensively about slavery and the systemic discrimination of blacks in America. In “Panther Power,” Tupac raps, “They kept my ancestors shackled up in slavery / And Uncle Sam never did a damn thing for me / Except lie about the facts in my history.” For Williams, in “Amethyst Rocks,” he states “Stealing us was the smartest thing they ever did / Too bad they don’t teach the truth to their kids.”

After joining the show—and before he had met the rest of the cast—Williams began to worry about his co-stars’ ability to recite Tupac’s lyrics on stage. Pac may not be as verbose as other rappers of his time, but his flow is intricate, and complicated to replicate. Fortunately for Williams, he “fell in love with the ensemble immediately.” He even found a kindred spirit in co-star Christopher Jackson, who trades many of the rapper’s most cherished verses with Williams during the show.

“This guy, his parents were Black Panthers. So when he talks about the criminal justice system, it’s not just because he’s been to prison, he’s learned extensively what has happened.”

“I got to make sure I eat my Wheaties every night,” says Jackson, about performing with Williams on a daily basis. “When he’s spitting you feel like you’re in the presence of greatness. His writing voice is so dynamic and filled with so much power and heart and passion and truth. He just goes in and you can’t help but stand there in awe.”

Jackson has been following Williams’ career for years (he admitted to watching Slam an estimated 10 times). The chemistry came easy between them. A bonus for Jackson is the privilege of collaborating with an artist whose work he’s always admired. In fact, during one of the last rehearsals, Jackson and the cast got a special treat, as Williams recited “Ohm,” a meditative account of life and hip-hop culture, along with Jackson’s favorite piece. A brief excerpt from the poem:

Through meditation I program my heart

To beat breakbeats and hum basslines on exhalation

Ohm

I burn seven day candles that melt

Into twelve inch circles on my mantle

And spin funk like myrrh

Ohm

“I wish I could rewind that moment at that time,” says Jackson. “It captured everything that we as a company were feeling as we were about to head into the theater and leave rehearsals to start tech. I couldn’t think of a more fitting verse than he recited. It was exactly what we needed to hear and move onto the next stage collectively.”

***

For Williams, the road after Holler If Ya Hear Me is already partially mapped out. After the show closes, Williams plans to continue working on his own hip-hop theater piece, one he’s worked on for a year and a half. Called Martyr Loser King, it’s a multimedia work that includes a performance component, original music, and a graphic novel with illustrations from artist Ronald Wimberly.

Though Williams spent the last four years of his life living in Paris and moved back to New York to do work on Martyr Loser King, he’s once again taking a detour. In the meantime, he will continue to use the same training and techniques that he learned when he was in school. Even as a poet, Williams considered himself an out-of-work actor creating a musical character, like he does in his third album, the Trent Reznor-produced The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!  

"I always felt like that’s what informed me in the poetry world, my theater training," he says. "I have never been shy on stage, and I knew everything about presence and connecting about your audience... basically how to rely on technique when the muse doesn’t strike. Otherwise you just learn how to be free and open and not fall into the traps of constricting your voice or losing connection."

Of course, like anything Williams has trained for, it’s about repetition. For now, he is using it to recite some of the greatest rap lyrics ever written eight times a week. The goal is to teach Broadway audiences about the message of Tupac Shakur and to continue to showcase the influence and authority rap can have on the masses.

“It’s like the power of prayer,” Williams says of hip-hop. “There is a reason priests say a million Hail Marys, because the process of saying that mantra, the idea of saying it aloud, and the sound vibration has that sort of effect. And hip-hop is so much about Say it with me, say it again, put your hands up and say it again!”