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A Tupac for everyone

‘Holler if Ya Hear Me’ uses songs by Tupac Shakur

6/10/2014, 2:49 p.m.
Saul Williams, center, in “Holler if Ya Hear Me.” Credit Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

NEW YORK TIMES - In the spring of 2001, Todd Kreidler met his boss, the playwright August Wilson, for breakfast at the Cafe Edison, as was their custom. Mr. Kreidler was assisting Wilson as he brought his play “King Hedley II” to Broadway, but really he was there to learn whatever Wilson wanted to teach him. And that morning, the subject was Tupac Shakur.

After a bit of chitchat, Wilson was exasperated with his charge. “You don’t really know ‘Dear Mama,’ ” he said, referring to Shakur’s signature ode to his mother. He got up, threw money on the table, marched out the door and to the nearby Virgin Megastore. There, he bought a copy of Shakur’s album “Me Against the World” and pressed it into Mr. Kreidler’s hands.

“There’s nothing contained in your life that’s not contained in that music,” Wilson told him, Mr. Kreidler recalled. “There’s love, honor, duty, betrayal, love of a people. There’s a whole universe in that music!” He made it clear, with some vulgarities for emphasis, that Mr. Kreidler wasn’t to return to rehearsal until he’d absorbed it all.

So on the day in 2010, when Mr. Kreidler opened a FedEx box with 23 of Shakur’s CDs and two books of his writings, tasked with building from them a musical rooted in that rapper’s words, he was prepared.

The result is "Holler If Ya Hear Me," which opens at the Palace Theater on June 19, and weaves 21 songs by Shakur (two of which are musically arranged versions of his poems) into a story about a community struggling to pull hope from the grasp of entrenched social ills. Put differently, it’s not a Broadway-ification of Shakur’s life or vision so much as a repurposing of his words into an emotionally felt, family-friendly context.

“It’s a story about unconditional love that uplifts all of his words,” said Kenny Leon, the musical’s director, a veteran of Wilson’s “Fences” and the current “A Raisin in the Sun.” In that, “Holler” has plenty in common with the rest of Broadway, and the creative team was careful in managing how the play handled what Mr. Leon termed “the things that people think they hate” — bad language, guns, violence.