Inspired by and using the lyrics of bestselling rap recording artist and performer Tupac Shakur (1971 – 1996), Holler If Ya Hear Me is a powerfully presented grim depiction of African-American urban life. “The Time is NOW on MY BLOCK in Winter, a Midwestern industrial city.”
After a second stint in prison, the hero John returns to his old neighborhood and gets a job at a garage repairing cars. His intention is to go straight; working, reading, drawing cartoons and keeping to himself. Inevitably there are conflicts between him and the dark endemic realities of this environment.
The Palace Theatre has been reconfigured so that upon entering there is a museum-like area displaying murals and objects relating to Shakur and items pertaining to the show. Past that is the audience area in which the seats are now closer to the stage and with the orchestra section raised like bleachers thus immersing the audience further in the sights and sounds of the show.
Director Kenny Leon and choreographer Wayne Cilento who also did the musical staging have created a dynamically hermetic landscape with stunning tableaus filled with rage yet also with hope. Despair is vividly realized with spectacular, often slow motion, dance numbers, intense performances and arresting minimalistic sets.
Parading around this panorama in the gripping introductory opening number are the residents. These include a crusading preacher with a bullhorn, the cleaned up junkie mother of two of the main characters, disaffected young men, gang members, and the resourceful women, who all do their best to survive amidst the bleakness.
Commenting on all of this and throughout the show are the brutal, coarse and realistic words of Tupac Shakur that have been artfully melded to music and fashioned into an inspired score by orchestrator-arranger-music supervisor Daryl Waters that is organically appropriate for this milieu. Sound designers John Shivers &David Patridge brashly project the score along with the requisite sound effects of sirens and gunshots so that it all overwhelms without being overwhelming though at times lyrics seemed to be drowned out.
Edward Pierce’s awesome scenic design embellishes the large dominant black-walled bare stage with simply painted scrims, gates, stoops, jail cell bars and a turntable. Combined with the superb lighting design by Mike Baldassari and Zachary Borovay’s accomplished projections the audience is enveloped in this universe. Reggie Ray’s assortment of earthy costumes has appealing authenticity.
The leads as well as the “My Block Chorus” with their tremendous acting, singing and dancing talents form a magnificent ensemble. Saul Williams is the commanding centerpiece of the show as John, beautifully conveying the character’s tortured complexities. Christopher Jackson is charmingly wily as Vertus. Broadway veteran Tonya Pinkins brings her characteristic wry forcefulness to the tragic role of Mrs. Weston, mother to both Vertus and Benny. Ben Thompson as the soft spoken sympathetic guitar-playing white garage owner’s son is wonderfully gentle. Saycon Sengbloh harrowingly depicts the plight of the supportive woman in this inferno. Darting in and out and bringing moving dignity to the weary Street Preacher is John Earl Jelks.
The original book by August Wilson protégé and collaborator Todd Kreidler is in the fiery style of his mentor. It’s also in the old tradition of social problem plays and films. In addition, there are noticeable similarities to West Side Story. Though the plot and characters often seem familiar, Mr. Kreidler has very successfully crafted a framework that everyone else involved builds upon, resulting in a bold and novel take on the subject.
Holler If Ya Hear Me (open run – closed July 2014)
Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway at 47th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-448-7849 or visit http://www.ticketmaster.com
Running time: two hour and twenty-five minutes with one intermission