Holler if Ya Hear Me: How Tupac’s ‘Thug Life’ Translates to Broadway

The performances are outstanding, but the Great White Way neutralizes the edginess that made Tupac and his music so profound.

Scene from Holler if Ya Hear Me Screenshot/YouTube

All John wants is a job, and he finds it in the neighborhood garage, owned by Griffy (Ben Thompson), one of block’s few holdouts from white flight. But John’s resolve to keep his life simple and peaceful is quickly tested. This being Broadway, there’s also a love story, one that pits John against Vertus for the affections of Corinne. And then things get really complicated when Vertus’ brother Bennie, a straitlaced kid with big dreams, is gunned down. John, Vertus and the rest of the block are soon feeling the pull of revenge, struggling in a classic good vs. evil battle to the death. Holler is nothing if not earnest.

And that’s the problem; you’ve seen this all before—with West Side Story, for starters. Holler, written by Todd Kreidler, a onetime collaborator with the late August Wilson, hits all the Broadway clichés (Guns kill!), clubbing the audience over the head with heavy-handed foreshadowing. The result is a confusing mishmash of overbaked plot and underdone characters.

I can’t help but wish that Holler’s creators had gone for broke, tossing out a traditional storyline in favor of letting Tupac’s music speak for itself. For all his “Thug Life” posturing, Tupac was a poet, a ghetto bard who in life and in death became the definitive voice of ’90s rap. His words, rhythms and worldview can more than hold their own.

There are hints of such possibilities throughout Holler, sparkling moments of brilliance, where sound and staging and movement mesh to make magic—like the scene where the ensemble cleaves to a restored purple Caddy, pulsing, throbbing, chanting the lyrics to ’Pac’s “California Love.”

Teresa Wiltz is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. She is the author of The Real America: The Tangled Roots of Race and Ethnicity, published by SheBooks.net.