Celebrity Interview By Brian Scott Lipton
On its surface, the new musical “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” now in previews at the Palace Theatre before a June 19 opening, seems totally different from anything previously produced on the Great White Way. No other Broadway show has used the work of a renowned hip-hop artist such as the late Tupac Shukar as its soundtrack and inspiration. But co-star Christopher Jackson — no stranger to the bright lights of Broadway since making his debut in ‘The Lion King” — says the work has more in common than you might think with many classic musicals.
“The main story is about two best friends, who through the course of significant events, end up at different crossroads in life. John (played by Saul Williams) goes to prison, but when he comes home from jail, he wants to go under the radar. Meanwhile my character, Vertus, has assumed John’s role on the street. Like many people, their biggest choice comes down to a simple question, which is how to survive and not starve,” says Jackson. “While it’s the same question facing so many disenfranchised Black men in America today, Broadway has always told stories about disenfranchised people, whether it was ‘Oklahoma,’ ‘West Side Story,’ ‘Hair,’ or [my previous show] ‘In the Heights’.”
A longtime fan of Shakur’s music, Jackson is thrilled that it’s getting such widespread exposure through this show. “He and his music were so complex and had so much heart and passion,” says Jackson. “In a lot of ways, hip-hop was like jazz was in its time; it lends itself to so many different voices and can be used to tell so many different stories.”
Having worked on two other Broadway shows earlier this season, the baseball-themed drama “Bronx Bombers” (in which he played New York Yankees superstar Derek Jeter) and the hit song-and-dance revue “After Midnight,” some might think the actor would be exhausted. Hardly! He’s extremely excited to work on this musical with director Kenny Leon, who just won the 2014 Tony Award for his work on the star-studded revival of “A Raisin in the Sun.””
“I have been so looking forward to this show since Kenny and I did the workshop last year,” he notes. “Kenny refuses to accept anything in your work that is inauthentic. He is always telling me to forget everything I ever learned about ‘performing’ onstage and to put away all my stage tricks, and learn to be in the moment. He is relentless in his expectations, but he makes me a better actor every day.”
If performing in “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” has one downside, it’s that Jackson won’t be available to fly to Beverly Hills on June 20 for the 2014 Daytime Creative Arts Emmy Awards, where he has been nominated for the sixth time as a songwriter for his tune “The ABCs of Moving” for PBS’ “Sesame Street.” (He won the Emmy in 2011 for “What I Am” sung by Will.I.Am.)
“Talk about a dream come true,” says Jackson. “I love writing for kids. I have two of my own, who are 9 and 5, and it’s always a thrill for me to hear them sing something from ‘Sesame Street.’ I tell people it’s my survival job, instead of waiting tables. But to know that I’m creating something that will live long after I’m gone, is really cool. Of course, I wish I could be at the Emmy ceremony in person, but all of the reasons of not being able to go, being in ‘Holler If Ya Hear Me’ is the best.”