When Saul Williams first heard about Holler if Ya Hear Me, the Broadway musical inspired by the lyrics of rapper Tupac Shakur, he wanted no part of it. He says he was as skeptical as many fans were.
Even though director Kenny Leon had garnered critical acclaim for reviving the works of great playwrights like Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun) and August Wilson (Fences), Shakur was something altogether different. The most obvious difference was that his music was made for the streets, none of them resembling Broadway. Then there was the question of whether or not a Tupac musical would be about the artist himself. Williams had no reason to believe that New York City’s version of Hollywood wouldn’t tarnish the rapper’s work.
But as Williams discovered after receiving the material, Leon had other plans.
It cannot be said enough times—Holler if Ya Hear Me is not about Tupac Shakur. Williams plays John, a young man just released from prison who returns to his old neighborhood only to discover how little things have changed. Shakur’s voice is present throughout, however, as his music propels the play’s story. Williams, who’s known largely as a slam poet, was a perfect choice for the role; few people possess the verbal dexterity to perform Shakur’s verbose rhyme structure.
Williams explained to The Root why he decided to take the role and how it has shaped his relationship with Shakur’s music.
The Root: In the 1998 movie Slam, you played a slam poet named Ray Joshua. In this musical, you’re playing John, a man who writes poetry while performing the work of a man many people consider a poet. You’ve also appeared on Def Poetry Jam. Is this pattern intentional on your part or are you being typecast?
Saul Williams: It’s funny because after I did Slam, I had every intention to be an actor. I went to school [Williams has a Master of Fine Arts in acting from New York University] with plans to be the next Denzel Washington. That was the plan. But even before Slam, I discovered poetry and it allowed me to develop my own characters, which made me not care as much for the acting world.
TR: Why is that?
SW: Well, it’s pretty specific reasons. Most of the offers I was getting was to play a cop or a detective, drug dealer, a lawyer or a doctor. It really never strayed from that. I would get to be the funny black guy besides the white guy who gets the girl. I was spoiled by growing up in the theater and the heyday of hip-hop, because all the stuff was meaningful, and I couldn’t find meaning in the opportunities that came after Slam. With music and poetry, I could find meaning, so I just kept saying yes to those things.
TR: Is that why you said yes to Holler if Ya Hear Me?
SW: Well, I was called in. I had to audition and I think I was one of the last people they saw because I auditioned a few days before they offered me the role.
TR: What have you learned about Tupac as an artist since getting so close to his music?
SW: Well, you can hear his influences. I listen to some stuff like Biz Markie and I can tell ’Pac was listening to him, too. You can hear what ’Pac was listening to, but he came so early in the game, you can also see he was creating some s—t that hadn't been done before. He had some real original flows and moments in him.
TR: Is there an example of that in the play?
SW: “Dear Mama” is beautiful, not only because of how much heart and perception is in that song, but where he places the word. He had an innate understanding of the blues.
TR: Considering Tupac is only being represented in the play musically, was there less pressure to perform because you didn’t have to actually be him, especially as a poet who performs himself?
SW: Well, when I’m onstage, I’m certainly not being me. The goal of acting is becoming. If you can achieve that naturalistic sensibility, then you’ve done your job, and that’s why I’m aiming to master as an actor.
Jozen Cummings is the author and creator of the popular relationship blog Until I Get Married, which is currently in development for a television series with Warner Bros. He also hosts a weekly podcast with WNYC about Empire called Empire Afterparty, is a contributor at VerySmartBrothas.com and works at Twitter as an editorial curator. Follow him on Twitter.