In “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” a hip-hop Broadway musical set to the music of the late, beloved rapper Tupac Shakur, actor Saul Williams turns in a first-rate performance that is as cool and sexy as it is commanding and skillful. To the role, the Newburgh, NY native brings years of experience as a poet, performing on national and international stages including Russell Simmons’ Def Jam Poetry (HBO) and the Nuyorican Poets Café on NYC’s Lower East Side. All of the actors were high-spirited and talented, but Williams’ intensity, especially during “I Ain’t Mad at Cha,” performed with the delightful Christopher Jackson (In the Heights), stood out.
Other high points were “Hail Mary,” “I Get Around/Keep Ya Head Up,” and the My Block Chorus dancing exuberantly to “California Love.” In addition to Williams and Jackson, the cast includes Tony award winner Tonya Pinkins, Saycon Sengbloh, Joshua Boone and Dyllan Burnside.
‘Holler,’ a non-biographical musical drama that addresses inner-city life, was conceived 17 years ago by the late playwright August Wilson and Shakur’s mother. Says Williams, “The project was conceived when Afeni Shakur approached August Wilson with this idea of doing a play. August was actually a huge Tupac fan. At the time, Wilson had an assistant named Todd Kriegler while doing Wilson’s play Gem of the Ocean on Broadway. The two had a conversation about Tupac’s song Dear Mama and Todd had never really paid attention to the song. Wilson was like “what?” and kicked him out of the rehearsal and made him spend the day in a room listening to Tupac’s songs. Wilson died in 2005, but Afeni met with director Kenny Leon about the project and Kenny suggested that Todd take it on since he knew Wilson’s relationship to the idea.”
For Williams’ part, he grew up studying theater and acting. And it shows. Known for his award-winning 1998 feature ‘Slam,’ which he co-wrote and starred in, he has performed in leading roles in countless school plays including Romeo & Juliet and Julius Cesar, so it’s no surprise he scored the lead role in ‘Holler. He then earned a BA in drama and philosophy from Morehouse College and an MFA from New York University’s Graduate Acting Program at the Tisch School of the Arts. He says he’s glad to be back in the theater after being away from it during his college years.
“I grew up as an emcee and studying acting from the age of 8 years old. I always focused on the theater, and then my life was commandeered by poetry and music once I graduated from NYU and did my thesis project. That project opened the door for me to record and publish and I got further and further away from the theater, so this project [Holler’] is my first sojourn back to the theater. I was missing it tremendously,” he reflects.
Before accepting the role in ‘Holler,’ he was living in Paris and returned to New York in 2013 to work on his own multimedia project, ‘Martyr Loser King.’
“I compiled all the pieces for my project and right after putting everything together, I got the opportunity to do this play which I took because I saw it as really aligned with my idea of what I was missing, being the theater, and what I wanted to do. And it’s cool. It’s one thing to execute your own projects, but it’s another to be hired to be a part of an ensemble. I was so excited the first day to meet the other cast members and realize that I’d be spending the next couple of months with these people and it’s been a very good experience,” he shares.
For those not familiar with his brilliant work, go online and check out the beauty, precision and lightning speed of ‘Coded Language.’ In it, he evokes a conscious rapper, a sage, Malcolm X, Gil Scott-Heron even. The work is pure poetry (some of us call it Spoken Word, but Williams says you’ll never hear him call it that), though he says he had “no interest in poetry growing up except in defending hip-hop as poetry to adults who were like ‘what the hell is this?’”
Holler if you hear him.