Tupac Shakur’s life was filled with events a playwright wouldn’t dare invent. His mother was a Black Panther who was in prison while pregnant with him; he signed to Suge Knight’s Death Row Records while in prison for felony abuse; he miraculously survived one shooting, only to be taken down by another in 1996 at age 25 — possibly as a result of a beef with former friend and collaborator The Notorious B.I.G.
But surprisingly, new musical "Holler If Ya Hear Me" — named after one of his most timeless songs and co-produced by his mother, Afeni Shakur — isn’t about the rap icon’s tragic story; instead, it uses his songs as a means to tell a different one. However, even after a tiring two-plus hours, it’s unclear just what that story is. "Holler If Ya Hear Me" is a well--intentioned but poorly executed jukebox musical that shoehorns Shakur’s hits into a space where a cohesive narrative should be. Drawing upon every conceivable urban cliche, the plot — what little there is — concerns a recently released prisoner named John (played by poet Saul Williams) and his attempts to convince his “homies” to keep the peace. There’s a truth-telling street preacher (a weak reference to "Do the Right Thing"), an ill-defined love story (sadly, the women are little more than props) and so many mentions of moving west that you know it’s only a matter of time before the cast bursts into “California Love.”
"Holler If Ya Hear Me" does have some bright spots: Edward Pierce’s set design is great, and it’s well-sung, particularly newcomer Christopher Jackson’s emotional take on “Dear Mama.” It’s exciting to hear Shakur’s lyrics brought to life by this cast on this big of a stage — which makes it even more unfortunate that "Holler If Ya Hear Me" has so little to say.