At the start of the 15-minute intermission between acts of Holler If Ya Hear Me, Kenny Leon’s new decade-in-the-making Broadway musical inspired by—and featuring—the late gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur’s songs and lyrics, the woman seated next to me, a bougie, middle-aged white woman with a serious case of Real Housewives of New York face, turned to her friend and released an audible gasp.
“The actors onstage are probably looking at me thinking, WTF? Why is this white woman in the front row mouthing all the words to these songs?” she shrieked to her partner-in-theater.
Much as Martin Scorsese’s three-hour carnival of orgies, ludes, and rampant douchebaggery, The Wolf of Wall Street, set a record for uses of the word “fuck”—with 569, according to the people whose job it is to measure these things—this raucous musical does, without question, set the record for most N-bombs dropped on The Great White Way.
After all, the late rapper was always a slam poet in wolf’s clothing, and Williams imbues Tupac’s introspective lyrics with plenty of soul.
Yes, you’ve never seen anything like Holler If Ya Hear Me on Broadway before. Written by Todd Kriedler and directed by Leon, who recently received a Tony nod for his work on the revival of A Raisin in the Sun, the self-described “non-biographical tale” began previews on June 2 at the Palace Theatre and opens June 19. The story centers on John (Saul Williams), an ex-con who’s released from prison to his dicey neighborhood and attempts to turn over a new leaf. He gets a job working at the local garage run by Griffy (Ben Thompson), a white boy with soul, and spends his downtime writing poetry and drawing at his ramshackle apartment in lieu of gang-banging with Vertus (Christopher Jackson) and his other friends from the block.
A rousing rendition of “My Block,” the Scarface rap ballad remixed by Tupac on his posthumous album Better Dayz, sets the scene. And from the get-go, you’re drawn into this bizarre marriage of Broadway and hip-hop. Much of the credit for the sensory immersion comes thanks to Edward Pierce’s creative set design. Prison cells and apartments descend from the ceiling; an altar, a bed of roses, and even dancers pop up from the ground; and a shiny purple Cadillac is wheeled around onstage.
The story, however, leaves much to be desired. It’s a pretty standard tale from the hood: Vertus is lured into a gang beef, much to the chagrin of his mother, Mrs. Weston (Tonya Pinkins, brilliant); John becomes fed up with his $6.50 an hour at the garage and joins up with his estranged, fedora-sporting pal and Darius (Joshua Boone), who’s stoking the fire; Anthony (Dyllon Burnside) is a doomed, diminutive innocent who’s hell-bent on proving his pistol-packing street cred; and Corinne, played by the stunning Saycon Sengbloh, is reluctant to rekindle her romance with John. Meanwhile, there’s a street preacher (John Earl Jelks) in a tattered suit that stumbles about reciting scripture via megaphone and spray-painting “Peace Is Now” on walls—a character clearly inspired by Ossie Davis’s Da Mayor in Do the Right Thing.
But plot is really secondary when it comes to Broadway musicals; it’s mostly about the musical numbers and sets. And Holler If Ya Hear Me boasts some very fun redecorated Tupac tunes. There’s an “I Get Around”/“Keep Ya Head Up” playground back-and-forth, with Darius and the fellas adopting the ode to lasciviousness and Corinne and the ladies crooning the female empowerment anthem—two songs that feature three tracks apart on Tupac’s sophomore LP Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. and do a fine job of representing the rapper’s intriguing wealth of contradictions. And the N.I.G.G.A.Z. in that album title is, of course, an acronym standing for Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished, with the “Z” pluralizing it—yet another example of ‘Pac’s layered messaging.
Other standout numbers include “Me Against the World,” which has been transformed into a touching duet; “Changes,” which sees the backup players bust some serious dance moves; Griffy’s acoustic version of “Thugz Mansion”; and, of course, “California Love,” which is performed in and around the aforementioned purple Caddy.
Chadwick Boseman, the up-and-coming young actor who played Jackie Robinson in 42 and will star as James Brown in the biopic Get On Up, out later this summer, was initially cast in the lead role of John, but replaced by Saul Williams due to a scheduling conflict (presumably with the Brown flick). But Williams, an open mic poet who became the Nuyorican Poets Café’s Grand Slam Champion in 1996, and wrote and starred in the 1998 film Slam, which won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, is a fine fit. After all, the late rapper was always a slam poet in wolf’s clothing, and Williams imbues Tupac’s introspective lyrics with plenty of soul.
My biggest fear going into Holler If Ya Hear Me was that the worlds of Broadway and hip-hop would overwhelm one another in unison, a la Beyoncé’s disastrous debut feature, Carmen: A Hip Hopera. But by the end of Leon’s hip-hop jukebox musical, you’re left in a euphoric rap-and-dance daze; a music junkie anxious for his or her next Tupac fix.
And it’s a welcome change of pace from the surfeit of stale musicals peddled on Broadway—ones that mostly cater to the average theatergoer: a 42.5-year-old white female, since 68 percent of audiences were female and 78 percent of tickets were bought by whites in 2011-12, the last year data’s been made available, according to The Broadway League.
Since The Great White Way was given that strange moniker in 1890, the majority of actors have also bore a pasty complexion. Only about 20 percent of all the roles cast on Broadway are occupied by actors of color, according to The Asian American Performers Action Coalition. Sure, Audra McDonald just took home her whopping sixth Tony award, but the diversity numbers have remained fairly stagnant.
“My goal is to create a new play that everyone feels is speaking to them,” Leon told Entertainment Weekly. “Not to get too corny, but this is the beginning of a sort of theatrical revolution, and after this, I hope that many young people in our country will think that Broadway is the place for them to tell their stories. I think there are a lot of diverse voices in our country who need to tell their stories on a raised stage in New York City.”
And as far as monuments to Tupac go, well, it’s a hell of a lot better than that stupid hologram.