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Reviewed by:
  • Holler If Ya Hear Meby Todd Kriedler
  • Stacie Selmon McCormick
Holler If Ya Hear Me. Book by Todd Kriedler, lyrics by Tupac Shakur. Directed by Kenny Leon. Palace Theatre, New York City. 21 June 2014.

As the first production to feature the work of a hip-hop artist (Tupac Shakur), the musical Holler If Ya Hear Me broke new ground on Broadway’s fabled stages. The production benefited from path-making productions like George C. Wolfe’s Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, along with the less easily categorized Stomp created by Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas, all of which adapted elements of hip-hop culture into contemporary theatre. Holler If Ya Hear Me brought together vocal performance, dance, and hip-hop lyricism in a storyline that depicts the struggle for life beyond the harsh realities of violence often experienced by various inner-city communities across the United States.

The drama of August Wilson with its portrayal of hardships of black life from the post- emancipation era to the present and Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem” that asks the iconic question “What [End Page 124] happens to a dream deferred?” clearly influenced the production’s thematic explorations. Set on “MY BLOCK, a Midwestern industrial city,” the performance captured various “battles” between dueling ideologies that many in troubled urban centers face when attempting to carve out a sense of hope in the midst of overwhelming violence. These conflicts resurfaced in various forms throughout the performance. The dualities represented in the production might be a natural result of the performance’s construction (which included the behemoth task of reconciling the voice of the rapper and the collaboration between playwright Todd Kriedler and director Kenny Leon with considerations for a largely mainstream Broadway audience) or a critical interpretation of the life of the artist whose lyrics drive the performance. In either case, these overlapping influences made it difficult to present a cohesive narrative.

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The company of Holler If Ya Hear Me. (Photo: Joan Marcus.)

Holler If Ya Hear Me is the story of a community of people grappling with the aftermath of the killing of Benny (Donald Webber Jr.), a beloved figure who is a victim of territorial battles between rival factions in the neighborhood. Benny’s death not only catalyzes the story, but he functions as a nexus whereby various characters and storylines meet, particularly around the decision of whether or not to avenge his death. He is the son of Mrs. Weston (Tonya Pinkins), who is also the mother of Vertus (Christopher Jackson). Vertus stands at a crossroads regarding whether or not to turn away from a life of crime. At the same time, John (Saul Williams) returns home from prison after shooting the man responsible for critically injuring his father, Street Preacher (John Earl Jelks). Mentally handicapped from the original attack, yet viewed as a community elder, Street Preacher traipses the streets with a megaphone promoting a message of love. Corinne (Saycon Sengbloh) also serves as an intermediary in her attempts to persuade John, her ex-boyfriend, to help her current boyfriend Vertus turn his life around. Finally, Benny connects the work’s sole white character, Griffy (Ben Thompson), to the community featured in the performance. Griffy is the son of a salvage shop owner and runs the business in his father’s absence. He had dreams of opening an auto-body shop in California with Benny.

While the effort to tell such a multifaceted story was laudable, the various themes addressed overwhelmed the narrative, thereby lessening its impact. The primary conflict presented in the production was the pen versus the pistol. This choice confronts John at the opening of the performance when we find him in jail performing the poetry he is writing. Once commenced, the stage transformed into a veritable battlefield where the characters struggled [End Page 125]

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Saul Williams (John) and the company of Holler If Ya Hear Me. (Photo: Joan Marcus.)

[End Page 126]

over existential questions, such as choosing between heaven or hell and whether peace was possible...


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pp. 124-127
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