Broadway and Atlanta director Kenny Leon’s “Holler If Ya Hear Me” is not what anyone expected. It’s better! For those of you who don’t know, the musical, playing at Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre through Oct. 8, is based on the music of the late rapper Tupac Shakur. Originally, I thought the show was going to be about Tupac, himself. That led me to this question: How exactly can you portray a thug rapper in a Broadway musical? Based on society’s standards, the words “thug” and “Broadway” belong in two totally different categories.
As the show begins, Tupac is nowhere to be found, except as the voice of the musical. Using Shakur’s most famous songs like “My Block,” “Dopefiend’s Diner,” “Life Goes On,” “I Get Around,” and “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” Leon tells a story of the struggle of a young man having the weight of his community on his shoulders, and his struggle to make the right decisions; along with the conflict that comes with being convicted. “People often confuse [‘Holler If Ya Hear Me’] with a biography, and it’s not. It’s about a story about a bond within a community. We use Tupac’s songs to tell this story,” says actor Durrell Lyons. The fictitious story is written by playwright Todd Kreidler.
What I enjoyed the most about this musical is the acting. The actors identified with the songs and the story. It wasn’t like karaoke night at a club. The songs were changed to fit the tone of the scenes. For example, the first scene opens up with Tupac’s “My Block,” but instead of a hardcore rap, an ensemble is singing the song. Yes, I said “singing the song.” Some might be skeptical about singing rap songs, but it is a Broadway musical, right?
I am going to be completely honest with you: This show made me cry. There’s a scene where we are able to step into a mother’s shoes as she loses a child to street and illegal activity. “Dopefiend’s Diner” is sung by that mother, Mrs. Weston (played by Theresa Hightower), and you can feel — not just hear — the hurt in her voice. This exact scene should open up everyone’s mind to problems we face as young people today. People are so eager to take lives, thinking that killing is cool, but they are also killing the mothers of those lives. We are killing their happiness and hope. Leon’s production perfectly shows this.
Of course, there were memorable lines from the show that should spark change in our community. One line in particular, “You mean why we shooting each other instead of shooting you?” is a leading question about why we still face racism today. It refers to the fact that there are more black-on-black crimes than black-led protests against police brutality and racism. Many people believe police brutality exists because the black community is brutal toward itself.
But laughter is also present in “Holler If Ya Hear Me.” The characters Griffy, John and Vertis joke about starting a new business together with the slogan, “The Boujee Bamboozlers. We fix s**t. We will f**k you over!” John, an ex-con, talks of having slim chances of ever starting his own business due to his lack of money. Vertis suggests he get a loan from the bank. John replies, “I’d love to meet the bank that’s going to give me a loan,” causing laughter to erupt from the audience.
Throughout the story, we see changes in the characters’ attitudes through the rewording of a sign. The sign changes from “Peace is now” to “Peace is never” to “Peace is never far,” reflecting the characters’ revelations.
Reflecting on the show, I realize this story is meant for my generation. It’s meant to be an eye opener to the dark road teenagers will go down if we continue to gang bang, kill each other and waste our lives. The show is rated for audiences ages 15 and up, but at the performance I attended my guests and I were the only teens present. This is why I rushed to get this story out: The youth are not paying this show any attention. This show is a must-see for youth because we learn that avoiding conflict does not make you weak, but saves lives. We learn that life gets hard after being convicted. We learn to not be a product of our environment but to rise above it.
In a way, Tupac is in the musical. The main character, Vertis, represents the message Tupac wanted to get out. How, you may ask? You’ll just have to see the musical to find out.
“Holler If Ya Hear Me,” directed by Kenny Leon runs at True Colors Theatre through Oct. 8 at the Southwest Arts Center, 915 New Hope Road, Atlanta, 30331. For tickets and info: truecolorstheatre.org or call: 877-725-8849.
Alia, 17, is a junior at Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School and writes VOX’s “Ask Alia” teen advice column.