by Teddy Nicholas · June 29, 2014
There’s a lot I loved about Holler if Ya Hear Me. I loved that the mostly bare stage of the Palace Theatre was dominated by a mostly all black cast of talented performers. I loved that the book by Todd Kriedler focused on portraying the lives and voices of the underrepresented black communities in America. I love that Broadway audiences are going to experience the music and poetry of Tupac Shakur.
Recently released from jail, John (Saul Williams) attempts to live a life of peace back on his block by starting a new job at Griffy’s (Ben Thompson) auto shop. Soon his old friend Vertus (Christopher Jackson) attempts to enlist John back in the business of dealing drugs. However, John just wants to be left alone, and avoids Vertus, and his former lover--and Vertus’ current lover--Corrine (Saycon Sengbloh). Soon, a new gang in the neighborhood tries to stake its claim by murdering Vertus’ brother. Vertus’ mother (Tonya Pinkins) tearfully gives her son some advice: “Change.” And when John realizes that his minimum wage job is just another cog in the system, his overwhelming rage takes hold and he joins Vertus’ gang, setting off a deadly chain of events.
Much like its characters, the plot of this gritty urban tale of love and violence occasionally pop-and-lock within the beats of Shakur’s rhythms under the direction of Kenny Leon (who recently won a Tony for his revival of A Raisin in the Sun). When “California Love” begins, one of the most energized and crowd-pleasing moments in the show, you would hardly expect it to end in a tense standoff not unlike something you’d see on an episode of Law & Order. And while I admire the boldness of its storytelling and its willingness to let Shakur’s words go unfiltered, I also felt somewhat at a distance to the musical, which is essentially a tragedy with a lot of messages. I wondered if maybe its heavy messages weren’t pounded a little too loudly at us. Despite its flaws, Holler if Ya Hear Me is definitely a worthy attempt by serious artists to present a new voice on The Great White Way.