Holler If Ya Hear Me Adds to the Legacy of Tupac Shakur

It’s official kids… the force of nature that is hip hop has crashed down on the Great White Way.  The music and culture that was created in the Bronx has changed the course of music and pop culture and influenced the world.  Hip hop and I grew up together.  When it was still a burgeoning form of music, hip hop served as a medium to convey the joys and sorrows of one’s neighborhood.  It was through hip hop that I learned how folks got down in Cali, of Bloods and Crips and low riders.  I learned what it meant to be chopped and screwed.  Through the vivid stories of MCs nationwide, I got to see what made all impoverished areas different and the same.   No MC reported the tales of the streets and the ills of society more poetically than Tupac Shakur.  When Tupac passed away on September 13, 1996 of respiratory failure and cardiopulmonary arrest in connection with multiple gunshot wounds, a part of my heart and youth died.  Since his untimely death at the age of 25, Tupac rose to the heights of icon status.  His lyrics and life inspired college courses and he is considered one of the greatest artists and MCs of all time.  Now the music of Tupac Shakur is the driving force of a new musical, Holler If Ya Hear Me, playing at the Palace Theatre.

5.201699Holler If Ya Hear Me uses Pac’s music to tell the story of urban plight, love and change.  John, played by the Saul Williams, has just returned to the neighborhood after serving a stint in prison.  With his hustling days behind him, he is hell-bent on changing his life for the better, but it’s hard to find change when the cycle of poverty keeps circling.  John’s friend Benny is murdered by a rival gang and the neighborhood is reeling.  Revenge weighs heavy on the heart of his brother Vertus and the homies that are left behind.  Violence seems imminent.  Even John has appeared to have discarded his plan of peace, until he is reminded there is a better way.  As John and Vertus decide to abandon any notions of retaliation, the neighborhood is rocked by another senseless death, which proves how the cycle of violence will only continue if strides aren’t made to break it.

5.201697The jukebox musical is a sure fire way of guaranteeing a successful theatre production.  The music and lyrics already have a legion of dedicated listeners, which promises at the very least the ability to recoup the monies invested in bringing a production to a Broadway stage.  One can almost argue that a jukebox musical is cheating because half the work has already been done.  The struggles of inner-city life and the desire to break away from its hopelessness isn’t a new theme.  In fact, one the most brilliant productions to ever explore this topic, A Raisin in the Sun, is currently enjoying another revival on Broadway.  Even the idea of hip hop isn’t entirely new.  Lin-Manuel Miranda introduced elements of the musical genre to the stage in In the Heights. But what is new is a jukebox musical based off of hip hop, and now rap has one with Holler If Ya Hear Me.

5.201700With the music of Tupac Shakur fueling this production, Holler If Ya Hear Me was poised to blow the roof off of the Palace Theatre.  However, there was one thing that stopped this production from rocketing off into the stratosphere, the book.   The neighborhood, which is set in the present day, could be any ghetto USA.  I’m in total agreement that Tupac’s lyrics are timeless, but the story could’ve benefitted by setting it in a specific city or region of the country.   One can argue that the story is clichéd taking cues from Menace to Society and Boyz in the Hood as well as West Side Story.  Maybe it’s my age or maybe it’s just challenging to create an original story in this century, but the book didn’t deliver on the dynamism reflected in Pac’s music making the production unbalanced.    The choreography wasn’t as explosive as I had hoped and the lack of a set left the actors drowning in on a half empty stage.  But even with these flaws, Holler If Ya Hear Me still shines because of Tupac’s music and the ability of Saul Williams to transcend past an overdone story to deliver a powerful performance.  Williams is no stranger to exuding passion on stage, after all he is one of the world’s most well-known slam poets.  Williams rage, sensitivity, charisma and presence were felt in every corner of the audience.

5.201701When it is all said and done, Holler If Ya Hear Me will join the long list of musical productions made during this millennium that teeters somewhere in the middle, not disastrous but not reaching the glorious spectacle of what musical theater used to be.  But I know very well that the people won’t come to this musical because they love musicals or Broadway.  They will come to pay homage to Tupac Shakur – a man who indeed was like a spark and through his ignition he succeeded in changing the face of hip hop and the world.  If nothing else this production shows how relevant Tupac still is. Holler If Ya Hear Me roars and I holler back, “Viva Tupac Amaru Shakur!”

Photos: Joan Marcus

Navigating Broadway Through 3D Waters

According to popular legend, Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon discovered the state of Florida while searching for the Fountain of Youth – the mythical spring said to promise longevity to anyone who drinks its waters.  Tony Award-nominated director Kenny Leon appears to have found the secret for endurance on Broadway – choose to work with impeccable playwrights and extraordinary actors.  When asked about his selection processes on choosing which plays he will work with, Leon states, “When I choose a project to spend time with, I first have to make sure that it will make a contribution to the world.  At one time, in my career I had to say yes to anything and now I ask myself, ‘Is me doing this project going to make a difference?  Is it going to touch people’s lives?’ I pray on it and wait for the answer to come back.  Then I usually move forward with it knowing that it’s not what the critics say about it, it’s what the people say about it.”

Leon definitely has the ear of the people and the critics.  Early this fall Leon’s brilliance was seen on Broadway when playwright Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop brought new meaning to the term British Invasion.  After having a successful run on London’s West End, the play that provides a fictional account of the night before Dr. King’s assassination is now playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett in the lead roles and Kenny Leon as director.  The play has been a hit with critics and audiences alike.  One might have found the notion of tackling Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as subject matter for a stage production an insurmountable task, but Katori, Leon, Jackson and Bassett wove a new stitch in the tapestry of Dr. King’s legacy with out blemishing the fabric of the man or his dream.  “Originally when I received the offer to do [The Mountaintop] my first thought was I didn’t want to do anything that was destructive of the iconic nature of Dr. King.  My agent said it’s about Dr. King and a sexy maid, and it’s like wait a minute,” he says.  “Then I said to myself, if it’s a fictitious account it might work, but if it’s trying to be realistic then that may not work.  Then when I read the script, what really convinced me was how I felt at the end.  At the end of the script I knew Dr. King was a man who loved his family, who loved his wife, who loved his country and who loved God and those were the things that brought me to it because those were the things that uplifted Dr. King.   And Katori had a way of making this man be human but at the same time showing those values that made him great.”

This Thanksgiving, Leon will have two plays on the Great White Way.  Stick Fly began previews November 18, and has a scheduled opening date for December 8.  Written by Lydia R. Diamond and produced by Alycia Keys, the play stars Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Tracie Thoms, Mekhi Phifer, Dule Hill, Rosie Benton and Condola Rashad and is about a family that comes to terms with themselves one weekend on Martha’s Vineyard.  Right after The Mountaintop debuted on Broadway, Leon was hard at work at the Cort Theatre helping to bring this script to life.  “Stick Fly is such a great project because Lydia Diamond is such a great writer,” he says.  She is an intelligent writer and she’s very funny.” 

Leon is widely known as one of the foremost African American directors, with the majority of his acclaim coming from the projects he has done on stage.  And it seems to me that Leon has charted a course that keeps him loyal to the theater, despite the more lucrative mediums of television and film.  “I have a T-shirt that says, ‘Film is art, theatre is life, television is furniture.’ That sort of summarizes it for me,” he affirms.  “I love television and I love film; they all have there ups and downs and pros and cons.  I’m getting ready to do a Lifetime movie for cable and I’m very excited about it.  We’re going to be able to reach a millions of people with that story.  In the theater you’re only able to reach a thousand people per night.  It is the ultimate 3D experience.  You don’t have to put on any funny looking glasses, you can just sit there and you can see Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett or Denzel Washington.  It’s the closest thing to life that we have.”

With all the successes and accolades that Leon has achieved, one thing has eluded him – a Tony win for Best Direction in a Play.  I wondered if not bringing home a Tony still mattered to him.  “It does, but you keep going you know,” he says.  In certain ways, a director is similar to an explorer.  A director is given a map – the script and is told to take it, get a crew together, go off and make a great discovery.  Kenny Leon has allowed his innate sense of understanding the beauty and frailty of human nature to guide him in participating in productions that are great discoveries to theatergoers each night.  In 2012, Leon promises to keep the tradition of surprising himself and his fans going by continuing to work with meaningful projects.  I am sure any project he works with will feature Kenny Leon’s ability to bring the soul out of the work and rejuvenate the soul of the audience in the process.

Photos:  Wire Image and  stickflybroadway.com

The Mountaintop, MLK Comes To Broadway

“And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t really matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” – The fatidic final words of Martin Luther King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech given April 3, 1968, at the Mason Temple, headquarters of the Church of God in Christ, in Memphis, Tennessee.   After his riveting oration, Dr. King went back to the Lorraine Motel where he remained through the night.  The next day the Nobel Peace Prize-winning civil rights leader was assassinated as he stood on the balcony of the motel.  These are the facts, but the events that transpired in room 306, often referred to as “the King-Abernathy Suite,” following King’s last speech has been the subject of debate.   Forty-three years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and on the eve of the official dedication of The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C., Broadway revisits King’s assassination in The Mountaintop.

The Mountaintop is the opus of playwright Katori Hall and takes a poetic look at crowning hours of King’s life before he made the transition from civil rights leader to martyr.  The production premiered in London in 2009, first playing at Theatre503 then transferring to Trafalgar Studios and featured British actors David Harewood and Lorraine Burroughs in the lead roles.  The play received positive reviews, won the Olivier Best New Play Award and was nominated for Whatsonstage Awards and Most Promising Playwright in the Evening Standard Awards.  The Mountaintop has crossed overseas.  It made its official Broadway debut at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, located at 242 West 45th Street, on October 13 and stars Hollywood luminaries Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett.

With an emotional score composed by Grammy Award-winning jazz maestro Branford Marsalis, The Mountaintop is set entirely in room 306 of the Lorraine Motel on the evening of April 3, 1968 and opens with Dr. King (Samuel L. Jackson) returning to his room, escaping from a serious storm howling outside.  As he settles in, waiting for Reverend Ralph Abernathy to return with a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes, he calls his wife, whom he calls Corrie, toils over a speech he intends to recite and orders a cup of coffee.  At his door arrives Camae (Bassett), a seemingly star-struck motel maid with his java.  What follows is a blistering, vivid, tender tête-à-tête that reveals Dr. King’s insecurities, mortality and his desires for the world.

Playwright Katori Hall manufactured a gem of a script, in my opinion is it is nearly flawless. She chips away at the mammoth, mythic figure that Dr. King was in life and in death and exposes him as a man with myriad emotions and frailties.  So many times we place figures like the late Dr. King on a pedestal and transform, without their consent, into demigods.  We dismiss humanistic qualities and dare anyone to paint a picture that is less than perfect. Really, who would have the audacity to depict Martin Luther King Jr. as a man that takes whiskey in his coffee, chain smokes Pall Malls, uses the N-word, engages in pillow fights, is riddled with fear and has smelly feet to boot.  Katori Hall had the balls to do it and did so in exquisite fashion by adding the necessary tints that changed the portrait of Dr. King from a supernatural civil rights hero into a man with the extraordinary ability to rise above his foibles to fulfill his destiny.  Impresario Kenny Leon hot streak on Broadway continues.  His ability to sniff out projects that are rich with complex characters coupled with the touches of genius he brings to an already beautifully crafted story should garner him another Tony nomination.  He is steadily showing himself to be one of the best directors on Broadway.

The two person cast of Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett is sublime.  In fact, Jackson could not have picked a better role in which to make his Broadway debut.  There is no doubt that Samuel Jackson is one of the best character actors in the business.  He possesses the knack to morph himself into a government agent, Jedi knight and crackhead and do so with the ability to bring forth the humanity in the character, uncovering their hidden truths and making them relatable to the audience.  There was no man better suited to show Martin Luther King the man than Samuel L. Jackson.  He utilized all of his ability in his portrayl of MLK and his depiction is no less than glorious.  Angela Bassett does not need house lights; her star power can illuminate the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre all on its own.  Her portrayl of the drinking, cussing, fascinating Camae scorches the stage – she is The Mountaintop.  Bassett is a force whose presence can only truly be experienced watching her on stage.  If you thought she was something in a movie theater, wait until you see her live.  Together she and Jackson conjure magnetic energy that surges through the audience, captivating them from the rise of the curtain to its fall. 

The Mountaintop is a phenomenal addition to the late Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy.  It has tremendous heart and the heart and soul of each person involved in the play is evident in this production.  Perhaps, the best testament to The Mountaintop’s ability to capture the spirit of Dr. King was evident in the audience filled with people of different hues and age groups.  I attend Broadway shows very often and by far this was most diverse audience I have witnessed this season.  Looking at the audience made me recognize that although we still have a ways to go before Dr. King’s dream is truly realized, we are closer to the Promised Land than we have ever been and if each of us absorbs the production’s true message, we will not have far to go.

Photos: Joan Marcus and Bruce Glikas

The Shadow behind Fences

Jim Bono, a character in the play Fences, reminds the audience that fences are built to keep people out, but they can also be used to keep folks in. Within all us resides a shadow, an entity that houses our fears, doubts, anger, resentment, etc. It is our nature not to want to face the darkest part of ourselves. By not acknowledging our shadows we build a fence around it which only allows the shadow to remain and fester. Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson once stated, “Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing. Use the pain as fuel, as a reminder of your strength.”

Fences is an intricate, dynamic story about baseball, marriage, family, infidelity and redemption, but mostly it is about the shadow that walks with us. Troy Maxson is a man that walks in his shadow, even if he does not know it. He is a man that is resentful about the hand he is forced to play in life. As a sanitation worker he provides a life for his family, but if the prejudices of the day had not prevailed Troy would have been a star baseball player in the major leagues. He has a wife, Rose, that willing to stick by him through the mundane disappointments life has hurled at them, but he desires more. He owns a home courtesy of the money his brother receives from the military after a brain injury suffered during the war. He harbors contempt for his father for the way he was treated, but does not realize how he imitates his father’s behavior. He has two sons. Lyons, the elder son who was not raised with him, has a strained connection with Troy. His youngest son, by Rose, only wants his father’s love and approval, but for Troy young, willful Corey may be his greatest test and he keeps striking out as he threatens to transfuse his bitterness to his son.

Denzel Washington is beyond brilliant in the role of Troy. Until one has witnessed Denzel Washington on stage, one can not truly fathom the talent that is inherent in this actor. Troy has all the characteristics of a certified, Grade A bastard, but Denzel Washington’s portrayal of this complex individual still compels the audience to like him and feel empathy for him. Viola Davis is sensational as Rose. Her performance turns a housewife into a heroine. Hollywood has yet to tap into the depth that this actress has to offer, whether on stage or screen her talent shines as bright as the morning sun and is as rare as a blue moon. Mykelti Williamson’s portrayal of Gabriel, Troy’s brother, is Bubba Gump on steroids – he is compelling and comical. Chris Chalk plays the rebellious Corey, Russell Hornsby plays Lyons and Stephen McKinley Henderson plays Jim Bono, Troy’s lifelong friend, all deliver pinch hits and bunts in their commanding performances.

The star power and expertise of this cast can only be compared to skill walking around in the New York Yankees’ locker room. Even Steinbrenner could not buy a better cast. Kenny Leon’s direction and the cast’s performances combine to be a Josh Gibson, cracked-bat home run out of the venue with the hardware to prove it. This revival of Fences garnered three Tony awards including Best Revival of a Play, Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play for Denzel Washington and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for Viola Davis.


 The Cort Theatre could barely contain the energy on stage. I viewed the play from the last row of the balcony and I was on the edge of my seat leering at the stage through the entire production. When Gabriel blows his horn in the final scene signifying that a deceased Troy had made it to heaven, it felt that the audience had been redeemed along with him. This revival of Fences is the second trip of play to Broadway since its first Tony award-winning incarnation in 1987. Surely August Wilson’s presence must shadow all the actors on stage while they bring his material to back to life. There may not be any crying in baseball, but there is room to run the gamut of emotion in this production. No fence is big enough to hold this play.

Photos:  Joan Marcus, http://fencesonbroadway.com.