Words by Brett Uddenberg
Some 15 years in the making, the Kenny Leon-directed “Holler If Ya Hear Me” has made its way to the Palace Theatre on Broadway for a three-month run. Based on the music of Tupac Shakur and starring Saul Williams, “Holler” is the first hip hop play to debut directly on Broadway (2008’s “In The Heights” began its run Off Broadway).
“Holler” centers around a man returning from a six year prison stint to a Midwestern community torn apart by violence. The theme of feeling trapped appears throughout the play. Trapped in prison. Trapped by the game. Trapped by the ghetto. Trapped by racism. Trapped by a system that denies opportunities to those of lower socioeconomic status. The play also explores the choices men make to escape these traps.
Williams was an excellent choice for the lead role of John, drawing on his spoken word background to lend extra gravitas to Tupac’s words while making them his own. He shined alongside Christopher Jackson as Vertus, a man trying to escape the flat circle of time that took the life of his brother.
The song selection illustrated what a complex and often contradictory figure Tupac was. In the first act, a number extolling the virtues of misogyny, “I Get Around,” segued into the pro-woman anthem of “Keep Ya Head Up.” A powerful, gloomy rendition of “Hail Mary” was the high point of the second act, illuminating the horrors of gun violence and the circumstances and mentalities that produce it.
Featuring strong performances from the cast, superb choreography by Wayne Cilento occasionally reminiscent of 90s music videos and a sharp adaption from Todd Kreidler, “Holler If Ya Hear Me” should appeal to fans of both hip hop and theater, provided that the latter aren’t too stuck on tradition to appreciate a rap musical.