Marcyliena Morgan, professor in the Department of African and African American Studies and founding director of the Hip-Hop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University, shares with Broadway Direct readers her insights on the Broadway premiere of Holler If Ya Hear Me, a new musical inspired by the lyrics of Tupac Shakur.
Hip-hop is no stranger to Broadway. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s four 2008 Tony Awards for In the Heights represent the highest recognition of hip-hop’s presence on Broadway to date. Now, Holler If Ya Hear Me hopes to expand on that legacy by exploring and interpreting the lyrics of the late Tupac Shakur on the Broadway stage.
The musical, which begins performances June 2 at the Palace Theatre, is a fictional account of two childhood friends, John and Vertus (played by, respectively, award-winning slam poet, actor, singer, and musician Saul Williams in his Broadway debut, and Christopher Jackson, late of After Midnight and In the Heights), and their families in a neighborhood of a present-day Midwestern industrial city. The two friends are surrounded by a community and chorus played by 22 actors, including Tony Award winner Tonya Pinkins who hear, witness, and recount Tupac’s lyrics and original songs.
Behind the scenes of this production is a powerhouse of top Broadway talent. The book, which uses Tupac Shakur’s lyrics to illustrate universal themes of friendship, family, revenge, change, and hope, is written by Todd Kreidler. Choreography is by Wayne Cilento (Wicked), and musical supervision is by Daryl Waters (After Midnight, Memphis). The production is directed by Kenny Leon, the driving force behind this season’s hit revival of A Raisin in the Sun and many other Broadway successes. “It’s not autobiographical; it’s just using Tupac’s music, and Todd Kreidler found a way to tie in 19 or 20 of his songs,” says Leon. “We did a workshop two years ago and another workshop last year. I’m most impressed with the current production because it’s an amazing evolution of a beautiful cast.”
Theater and performance were in Tupac’s blood. His mother, Afeni Shakur, encouraged him to develop his interests in the arts, and he continued his creative-arts education even as he moved from school to school. He spent much of his childhood in New York, where he joined the 127th Street Ensemble Theater group in Harlem and debuted at the Apollo Theatre in 1984, as Travis in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. As his family moved from New York to Baltimore and later to Marin County, California, he always attended performing-arts schools. As Tupac developed as an artist, his love of Shakespeare, philosophy, and social justice became embedded in his rhymes. That his lyrics are influenced by theater and philosophy was evident as early as 1991 when, at 16 years old, he wrote and recorded Brenda’s Got a Baby. Tupac explored the problems of teenage pregnancy and child neglect, as he rhymed: Cause I bet Brenda doesn’t even know / Just cause you’re in the ghetto / [It] doesn’t mean you can’t grow. This song appeared at a time when pregnancy and birth rates were alarmingly high for African American girls, and his lyrics let no one off the hook. He describes the devastation and is critical of black families, neighbors, the police, the U.S. government, and young men for not protecting and loving young women.
Holler doesn’t wince at the honest material and harsh language of hip-hop, nor does it attempt to wink at the audience to assure them that they will not be challenged. Though the story is not autobiographical, it echoes Tupac’s plea that we hear and act rather than passively listen and do nothing. Throughout his life, Tupac’s response to questions about whether his lyrics reflected his personal life or someone he knew was, “Actually, it’s about somebody that we all know.” This perspective requires the audience to hear beyond the surface angst and understand the collective pain and bewilderment of life in the city that we all share. It also insists that one never give up hope. In fact, the honesty and language of the play allow the audience to experience the raw anger and frustration as well as the belief that if one doesn’t give in and “keeps their head up,” life will get better. Consequently, Holler’s job is to tell a story of loss and conflict while maintaining Tupac’s belief that life can be better.
Tupac Shakur’s public life, from his teens until his heartbreaking death in 1996 at age 25, became a powerful and critical American story and cautionary tale. For some, Tupac’s public reputation as a troubled young man obscures the reason why his lyrics and the life and lives they explore and expose remain influential among generations who have listened to them. His words have always reflected his unrelenting desire for fairness and belief that the pain in the world should not be ignored. Instead, he insisted that it be addressed head-on with compassion. In Holler, Tupac’s words inspire imagination and capture hip-hop’s quest for the truth and all its contradictions. That these idealistic notions should be at the heart of a raw urban tale should not be a surprise. In fact, it is widely celebrated. Tupac’s 1995 song “Dear Mama” is on the Library of Congress National Registry, and his 1998 release Changes is on the Vatican playlist. They are both tales of hardship and forgiveness, anger and love.
Tupac may have found his final resting place, but his lyrics live on and demand a stage, director, writer, choreographer, designer, and audience that can reimagine a space where skills are practiced and critiqued. Hip-hop’s demand to never stop trying to get it right, stay the course, tell the truth, and still have hope, believe, and, to use an old hip-hop expression, maintain no matter what, is how it all began. Only dreamers believe it’s even possible. Only theater can transform our world to get us to hear and to trust our imaginations.
As director Leon says, “We’re touching on something that I think is very important to the world and, just like Tupac talked about in his music and he talked about himself changing the world, I very much think that this musical can change the world.”