Editor’s Note: Despite an excellent cast and a massive promotional campaign, the play reviewed below did not survive the whole summer on Broadway. This is not because the play was bad. Many good plays don’t last more than a few weeks on Broadway because of the astronomical costs involved. Investors must expect to lose a million dollars or more in the first week if they open on Broadway! So read this review if you want to know what you missed, and perhaps (like the recent Fela! musical) the play will be revived later on a different stage.
By Roberta Nin Feliz
“Holler If Ya Hear Me” a play which debuted this summer on Broadway at the Palace Theater off 47th street, brought the rap martyr Tupac Shakur’s lyrics to life, literally. By using Tupac’s songs to guide us through the story of “John” (a convicted felon coming home from serving a six year sentence in prison), the play explores the decisions John has to make while immersed in an environment that will test his desire to be free. As a hip-hop musical, the play reminds us that Tupac’s lyrics not only describe his own struggles, but the struggles of all ghetto children. “Holler If Ya Hear Me” successfully depicts the lives of people in underprivileged areas by using music, dance, and a defiant sense of humor to focus attention on troubling issues like racism, drugs, violence, sexism, and our prison system.
The play featured 13 cast members and a chorus, who although shown living in a seemingly “ghetto” neighborhood, managed to preserve a strong familial bond with one another. My favorite character was Joshua Boone who played the role of Darius, one of the street “thugs” and a friend to the main protagonists John and Vertus. Although Darius obviously exists to embody the stereotypical gangster that we encounter in many dramas about the ‘hood or underprivileged areas, Boone seemed to embrace the character’s clichéd personality, and thus was very entertaining to watch. There was never a dull moment with Boone on stage. Whether he was playing with girls’ hearts or convulsing on the floor, he kept me engaged the whole time, particularly when he, Reggie, Lemar, Corrine, Kamilah and the My Block Chorus performed “I Aint Mad At Cha/ I Get Around”. During this choreographed number, we got to see the women on the block defend themselves against the men’s cat-calls and groping by singing “I Aint Mad At Cha,” while the men sauntered across the stage performing “I Get Around.”
Cast in the role of John, Saul Williams’ stern and rigid facial features made him look like the tough guy he was supposed to be. However, had it not been for his facial features, his depicting someone fresh out of jail might not have been that believable. He didn’t really have the physical appearance of a prison survivor. His physique seemed too thin and fragile to support his attempt at looking like a convicted felon. I’m not sure whether it was intentional or not, but at times I could feel his mean facial expression softening and that subtle change drew me into his character. This was especially true at the end when the play was over, and the actors were bowing. By then his face had completely softened. He was the only one among the cast members that kept mouthing “thank you” to the audience as they applauded and cheered.
It’s very important to note that none of the women in this play looked like actresses from most other plays on Broadway, such as Mary Poppins or Beauty and The Beast. These women were dark, lovely and voluptuous. I watched in awe as they sang their hearts out and danced across the stage embracing all of their curves. I had never seen a Broadway play in which the actresses weren’t thin and of lighter complexion. It was refreshing to see a new image for Broadway actresses championed by this play. Not only that, but these women looked like my friends, like the people I see every day on the street, like REAL people. This factor made the whole play more enjoyable and relatable for me.
I have always been a big hip-hop/rap fan but watching “Holler If Ya Hear Me” made me gain newfound respect for Tupac. Was it mere coincidence or a ghostly nudge from Shakur himself, that shortly before I entered the Palace Theater “Dear Mama” by Tupac came on my iPod and I realized how few Tupac songs I have? Previously I’d never bothered really listening to Tupac because I always sided with Biggie Smalls. But listening to the songs in the play, I realized how talented Tupac truly was. I also realized that his music frequently spoke about issues I feel passionate about, like kids in the ghetto, racism and even loving your mother. Watching Vertus sing “Dear Mama” to his mother was touching to the point where I wanted to go home and sing to my own mother.
Watching the cast deploy Tupac’s lyrics to tell a story that has unfortunately been too common in underprivileged and ghetto areas, made me wonder if Tupac just possessed a prescient mind, or if nothing has really changed since his death. It seems like everything he rapped about in songs like “Thugz Mansion”, “My Block” and “Hail Mary” are things that go on in my neighborhood and many other neighborhoods today. Seeing the Street Preacher’s painted words on the wall change from “Peace is Now” to “Peace is Never” to “Peace is Never Far”, reminded me of the uphill battle many people in the ghetto face trying to survive and stay hopeful. To me the play does exactly what Tupac’s lyrics always tried to do: give voice and attention to problematic issues associated with living in ghetto areas. The title itself clearly expresses a desire for communication and the hope for liberation that all ghetto children feel: “Holler if you hear us.”