Review: ‘Holler if Ya Hear Me’ makes Tupac music feel urgent, essential

Theresa Hightower and Garrett Turner play a mother and son in “Holler if Ya Hear Me,” a musical inspired by rapper Tupac Shakur and directed by Kenny Leon at True Colors Theatre. CONTRIBUTED BY BILL RANSOM AND CAREY WILLIAMS
Theresa Hightower and Garrett Turner play a mother and son in “Holler if Ya Hear Me,” a musical inspired by rapper Tupac Shakur and directed by Kenny Leon at True Colors Theatre. CONTRIBUTED BY BILL RANSOM AND CAREY WILLIAMS

Todd Kreidler's "Holler if Ya Hear Me" is a jukebox musical that uses the sounds of influential rapper Tupac Shakur (1971-1996) to describe a culture in peril.

The show arrived on Broadway in 2014, just a couple of months before the first Ferguson riots caused the Black Lives Matter movement to gel, and though it is not a musical biography of Shakur, it holds a mirror to his community.

In the tragedy of John (Rob Demery) and Vertus (Garrett Turner), Kreidler creates a "Ghetto Gospel" with biblical sweep. It's a kind of urban Last Supper that alludes to "West Side Story," "In the Heights," and the transcendent poetry of August Wilson and Tarell Alvin McCraney.

I could not hear Turner perform “Dear Mama” without reflecting on how much Wilson, Shakur and McCraney all loved their mamas. You hear it in every heartbreaking line they ever wrote. (Shakur: “Even as a crack fiend, Mama, you always was a black queen, Mama.”)

No surprise, then, that Kreidler finds so much symmetry and meaning in the alignment of Wilson and Shakur. He had a kind of 11th-hour master class from the monumental playwright (who by the way adored Shakur), serving as dramaturg on Wilson’s final plays, “Gem of the Ocean” and “Radio Golf.” Here it is clear that he is aware of his legacy as a messenger through which the immortal lines of Shakur can and must flow.

As a kind of rough-hewn Wilsonian footnote (replete with a wise fool tottering in and out and scribbling like a prophet), “Holler if Ya Hear Me” may not be a wholly satisfying work, but Kreidler’s powers of empathy are vast.

Directed by Kenny Leon and choreographed by Jared Grimes, this gritty tale of troubled black men caught in a cycle of violence, drugs, self-destruction and despair can feel flimsy and a bit cliched. But I’m less concerned with its flaws than its strengths: raw vitality and political resonance.

To hear the rapper’s prescient “Changes” performed by this solid ensemble is to get goose bumps: “I see no changes, all I see is racist faces, misplaced hate makes disgrace to races.”

On “My Block,” you may feel a little “In the Heights” deja vu (not a bad thing), but the story is much darker.

Rob Demery plays John in “Holler if Ya Hear Me,” a musical inspired by rapper Tupac Shakur and directed by Kenny Leon at True Colors Theatre. CONTRIBUTED BY BILL RANSOM AND CAREY WILLIAMS
Rob Demery plays John in “Holler if Ya Hear Me,” a musical inspired by rapper Tupac Shakur and directed by Kenny Leon at True Colors Theatre. CONTRIBUTED BY BILL RANSOM AND CAREY WILLIAMS

A mother (Theresa Hightower) loses her son to the random violence of the streets, and the gang war that follows in the aftermath rips the social fabric. The cycle plays out as a tussle between John (newly sprung from prison after a lonely six years) and his drug-dealing friend Vertus, who is like John’s surrogate sibling (not necessarily in a good way). Corinne (D. Woods) completes the love triangle.

John is proud, wounded and self-sabotaging, even as he tries to go straight. He finds work at an auto-repair shop run by Griffy (Rob Lawhon), and there’s even a bit of a “Greased Lightning” moment involving a classic car that looks like it’s been pieced together with tinfoil and papier-mache. (Come on, designers.)

Casting Hightower was a good move, though. Mrs. Weston is not a terribly big or nuanced role, but Hightower imbues the character with grace and dignity. Eddie Bradley Jr. finds the pathos in the lurching anguish of the Street Preacher; if you know Wilson’s Gabriel (“Fences”) or Stool Pigeon (“King Hedley II”), you’ll appreciate the angelic majesty of this shambling, almost wordless man. He has access to information that most of us don’t.

Demery and Turner are good; but I don’t feel much tension between their characters. Wonza Johnson (Anthony), Markelle Gay (Darius) and spoken-word artist Lisa Rozier are electric, however.

"Holler if Ya Hear Me," for whatever reason, did not have a long life on Broadway. For those of us who didn't get a look then, seeing it in Atlanta is kind of a gift. Shakur knew that change would be a long time coming. More than two decades after his death, it's sad to see that he was right.

THEATER REVIEW

“Holler if Ya Hear Me”

Through Oct. 8. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Tickets start at $15. True Colors Theatre, Southwest Arts Center, 915 New Hope Road, Atlanta. 1-877-725-8849, truecolorstheatre.org.

Bottom line: Tupac Shakur musical mirrors the times.

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