Scene from Holler if Ya Hear Me
Screenshot/YouTube

Watching Holler if Ya Hear Me, Broadway’s ode to all things Tupac, I can’t help but wonder what it is about the Great White Way that neutralizes even the edgiest of material. Maybe it’s the live orchestra jamming away; maybe it’s the bright lights; maybe it’s all those jazz hands—or maybe it’s the effort to make complicated social issues palatable to the theatergoing masses. (Think tourist; think white; think middle-aged and up.)

But Broadway—or, at least, its musicals—is primarily a happy space.

Take Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, arguably the first Broadway musical to take on hip-hop, which rendered the once rough-and-tumble Washington Heights—“one of New York’s most murderous communities”—with an idealistic, burnished glow. Even the hookers were wholesome.

Holler if Ya Hear Me, which opens this week and stars slam poet Saul Williams, is no different.

Don’t get me wrong: There is much about Holler that is very, very good, from the music (I mean, c’mon, it’s Tupac) to the ferocious performances (Williams and Tonya Pinkins are among the many standouts) to the staging and direction (Tony Award winner Kenny Leon directs). It’s just that in bringing all of Tupac’s ingenuity, all of his complexity and contradictions, to the mainstream mecca that is Broadway, a little something got lost along the way.

Perhaps this is inevitable.

First, don’t come to the Palace Theatre expecting to see Tupac Amaru Shakur’s life and death onstage. You’ll just end up befuddled. This is no musical biography, the way Motown the Musical is a prettied-up version of Berry Gordy’s life. Instead, Tupac’s music serves as the soundtrack to a broader story. There is no Tupac figure: Williams makes for a mesmerizing stage presence. But at 40-something, he seems too old and world-weary to be a true stand-in for the baby-faced ’Pac, who died at 25, shortly after a hail of bullets felled him on the Vegas strip back in ’96.

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The setting is a Midwestern industrial city in Any Ghetto, USA. The specifics of where don’t matter, and I suppose that’s the point. This is meant to be a universal story. The musical opens with John (Williams) in the confines of his prison cell, a cage that hangs suspended from the stage. He’s spitting Tupac’s lyrics a cappella, intense, bitter, haunted:

They got a n—ga
Shedding tears, reminiscing on my past fears
Cause s—t was hectic for me last year
It appears that I've been marked for death, my heartless breath
The underlying cause of my arrest, my life is stressed
And no rest forever weary, my eyes stay teary
for all the brothers that are buried in the cemetery

Bit by bit, the music kicks in—the orchestra is hidden offstage—and the street block below John throbs with life, with each character rapping or singing a line from Tupac’s “My Block.” First, we are introduced to Vertus (Christopher Jackson), John’s rival, a man with a fondness for fedoras and the fast life, and then, bit by bit, we meet the block’s denizens: those trying to live along straight lines and those determined to bend those lines until they snap. By the end of the song, John steps out from his prison cell, a newly freed man back on the block, with all its dangers, temptations and hope.

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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.

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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.

Teresa Wiltz is senior staff writer at Stateline, the journalism outlet of the Pew Charitable Trusts.