BWW Review: Confrontational HOLLER IF YA HEAR ME Channels Anger Into Art
Director Kenny Leon and bookwriter Todd Kreidler don't seem the least bit interested in the past as they create a dynamic new musical theatre piece, Holler If Ya Hear Me, to frame the lyrics and poetry of rap artist Tupac Shakur.
There is no mention of, nor vision of their co-author, who died by gun violence in 1996 at the age of 25, on stage at The Palace. Instead, their traditionally-styled musical (the names of the abundant number of composers whose work is used are listed in the back of the Playbill) tells a contemporary story set in the kind of world Shakur wrote so emphatically about; an unnamed Midwestern city where young black men learn quickly that they will live their lives being watched by suspicious eyes.
Slam poet Saul Williams is a galvanizing presence in his Broadway debut, playing a central role that can be taken as the author's voice. As John, he opens the evening in a prison cell, soon to be released after six years. "My Block" offers his view of the violent and oppressive world he's returning to ("Now shit's constantly hot on my block / It never fails to be gunshots / Can't explain a mother's pain when her son drops.") but John is determined to just get a job and stay out of trouble.
A self-taught sketch artist, John's a sullen, quiet man of few words, but when left alone he lets out the most heated and verbose of Shakur's demands for justice. The auditorium of The Palace has been rearranged to stadium seating, increasing intimacy and allowing Williams to make direct eye contact with viewers. Holler If Ya Hear Me is at its most thrilling during these moments when the star connects with the audience through spoken word poetry that channels anger into art.
Unfortunately, the musical comes with all of the expected stumbling blocks that accompany a show of this nature. Kreidler tries to present a collage of characters in interwoven stories, but without an original score, everyone expresses themselves in the same lyrical language. When songs and raps are shared among multiple characters it sounds like they're tag-teaming monologues. Additionally, the plot is set in the present while the language of the lyrics is from the 1990s.
The scripted scenes of men who fight in gangs for survival and the women who try and stop them frequently echo West Side Story and never get their points across as effectively as the lyrics.
But Leon and his design team enrich the evening with visuals that balance the stark realities of the neighborhood with glimpses of optimistic dreams. Wayne Cilento's inner city choreography is exciting to watch and believably streetwise.
The cast is first-rate. Christopher Jackson has touching moments as a drug dealer whose little brother is killed by a local gang, as does the underutilized Tonya Pinkins as his mother and John Earl Jelks as a mentally damaged street preacher. There's fine support by Dyllon Burnside as a young kid who gets in over his head with guns and Ben Thompson as John's employer, a young white guy who, despite his decency, is always looked on as an outsider.
The fact that a confrontational theatre piece such as Holler If Ya Hear Me, utilizing the work of a controversial artist, can open cold at The Palace without the benefit of positive word of mouth from a regional or Off-Broadway run is a huge breakthrough for contemporary Broadway. Though the weakness of the book is a significant flaw, the excitement generated by having a major theatre director do something so daring as to provide a musical theatre context for the lyrics of Tupac Shakur and, for the most part, succeed in developing an exciting dramatic work, is a reason to greatly admire the first entry of the new Broadway season.