NY Theater Review by Sandi Durell

Hip Hop, rap and the tragic tales of ghetto life in the African American community come to life on the stage of the Palace Theatre in a compilation of the music and poetry of rapper Tupac Shakur (shot down in 1996 at the age of 25 in Las Vegas). The message is loud and clear and tragic as told by writer Todd Kreidler and directed by Tony winning director Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun).

image-1The language and music are unfiltered and the story hasn’t changed. Poor black (and white) youth living in the ghettos are killing each other; erupting with hotheaded violent behavior and frustration.The “N” word is used freely and frequently along with just about every other derogative.

It’s hard to think of this as a jukebox musical since that term conjures up “Motown the Musical” or this season’s award winning “Beautiful: the Carole King Musical” among others. Holler is the down and dirty ugly side of life that seems senseless and without reason – more of what has become part of the latter 20th century and on-going. The music is loud and raw. It speaks freely about guns, racism, poverty, blacks killing blacks, the disrespect of women, tempered with friendship and strength of family and undeniable outstanding performances.

The show is staged in somewhere Midwest USA and, at one point, as the threat of gang violence is a moment away, one cannot think of an upcoming rumble unfolding not unlike that in West Side Story.

Saul Williams (Slam) plays John (descending from the rafters in an elevator cell), a brooding ex-con whose emotions are well concealed even when it comes to his ex-girlfriend Corinne (Saycon Sengbloh) or his friend, drug king Vertus (Christopher Jackson – In the Heights). When a young innocent Benny (Donald Webber Jr.) dies from a bullet intended for his brother Vertus, all hell breaks loose as the young toughies hunger for retaliation against the gang killers. It hits harder because he was about to start a new life with his car mechanic friend Griffy (Ben Thompson), the only white character in the show. The grieving Mom – Mrs. Weston, is played by the always remarkable Tonya Pinkins, of whom I’d like to have seen more. John Earl Jelks plays the street preacher who tries to bring some sanity to a world torn apart. There are fine performances by Jahi Kerse as Nunn, Joshua Boone (Darius), Dyllon Burnside (Anthony).

Songs like “Whatz Next,” “Me Against the World,” “If I Die 2Nite,” “Dear Mama,” the title song Holler; guy/gal “I Get Around” answered by “Keep Ya Head Up” gives choreographer Wayne Cilento an attempt at some stylized moves. The scenic design is nicely defined by Edward Pierce with projections by Zachary Borovay and costumes by Reggie Ray. Mike Baldassari provides the fine lighting.

Holler would be better served in a smaller space and with some time back on the drawing board; the tale and the message are so in your face that there’s nothing – hackneyed moralizing clichés. Social injustice is an on-going societal problem – yup, we gotta find peace (Ghetto Gospel).

Palace Theater, 1564 Broadway at 47th Street; 877-250-2929, Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes.

Photos: Joan Marcus

(Interview with Christopher Jackson by Brian Scott Lipton)