When he was 12, Joshua Boone learned that his uncle had been killed in an act of gun violence. He knew the neighborhood in their Southeast Virginia town had problems with crime, but he never imagined it would hit home like this.
Boone, now 26, closed a karmic circle of sorts this week when he stepped onto the stage in "Holler If Ya Hear Me." "Holler," which opened Thursday night at the Palace Theatre, is a new Broadway show based on the music of Tupac Shakur, and it takes a surprisingly direct look at issues such as gun violence and racism.
"People get wrapped up in the wrong situations, and then these senseless acts take them away," Boone said in an interview. "That's what happened to me growing up. That's what we speak about in the show."
Directed by the newly minted Tony winner Kenny Leon ("A Raisin in the Sun") and with a book penned by former August Wilson dramaturg Todd Kreidler (“Gem of the Ocean), "Holler" is one of the more unusual convergences to hit this country's capital of commercial theater.
With its Shakur-inspired tale of urban decay and street morality, it is a very un-Broadway musical, presented by some of Broadway's biggest names. (Tony winner Wayne Cilento, of "Wicked" fame, choreographed.)
It also boasts a surprising range of performing experience. Newbies with hardscrabble backgrounds like Boone and the Atlanta native Dyllon Burnside act, sing and dance alongside the slam-poetry pioneer Saul Williams, the theater workman Christopher Jackson ("In the Heights") and the Tony winner Tonya Pinkins.
At a moment when most Broadway musicals offer little more than harmless entertainment, "Holler" is an artistic and commercial gamble. Among its lyrics: “Cops give a damn about a Negro? Pull the trigger, kill a … he's a hero. Give the crack to the kids who the hell cares? One less hungry mouth on the welfare. … Give 'em guns, step back, and watch 'em kill each other." “The Lion King" it isn't.
But its creators say that, with its smooth choreography and catchy beats, the production can appeal to a new Broadway audience while raising the consciousness of an existing one.
"These are issues in this show of education, of youth, of race, of the things that Lorraine Hansberry was talking about in "Raisin," Leon said, referencing his previous work, which closed earlier this month after relatively strong sales. "A Tupac musical is fresh, it's hot. I really believe it could be the new 'Raisin.'"
"Holler" certainly doesn't shy away from the social issues that preoccupied Hansberry a half-century ago. Centering on the newly released ex-con John (Williams), it tells of a man whose act of street violence landed him several years in jail, but whose Shakur-like reading and writing of poetry has yielded a quiet intelligence, if still-simmering anger.
Contrasting with John is Vertus (Jackson), whose friendship with the former prisoner, we learn, is complicated by the circumstances leading up to and during John's incarceration. When Vertus' younger brother is killed, an innocent victim in a gang turf battle, Vertus, John and other characters must decide on a response. Pacifist calls to stop a cycle of violence clash with a human need for justice and a larger rage against a system they believe has failed them.
Shakur, the iconic West Coast rapper and activist killed in 1996, is never mentioned in all this; instead, the narrative is structured around some of his most popular and provocative songs. “Changes,” with the aforementioned welfare lyric, casts a harsh eye on social ills. Personal anthems such as “Me Against the World” and “Only God Can Judge Me” offer intimate and defiant looks at men who feel trapped by circumstance.
"Dear Mama" serves as a call from Vertus to his concerned mother (played by Pinkins). The title song represents several characters' primal need to find a place in a cruel world. (Poppier numbers, such as the car-radio staple "California Love," offers a counterpoint to the show's mainline drama).
Kreidler said he worked to ensure these disparate elements -- particularly a universalist family story line and an examination of harder truths — jibed.
"I tried to be the beckoning finger, to have a lot of points of entry," the writer said. "My four quadrants for this show are hard-core fans, people who know a little Tupac, Afeni Shakur and Susan Kreidler," alluding to Shakur's mother and his mother, whom he described as very far apart on the rap-consciousness spectrum.
Indeed, lines of dialogue in which men disturbingly assume prison is a given will sometimes sit opposite a joke about sudoku or even a rap based on the folk singer Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner." (For all its tough-minded elements, the production could also face criticism from Shakur hard-liners that it doesn’t go far enough.)
Others working on it believe that, like Shakur himself, “Holler” can achieve a level of mainstream popularity because of -- not despite -- its bareknuckled message. Such themes, they say, are hardly just a historical matter.
"It's still happening everywhere. It goes from South Central to the South Side of Chicago, but it's the same thing," Jackson said. "It wasn't new when Pac sang about it, and it's not old now. It’s the same story, just with a new voice."
Burnside, who plays a more ideological member of the community, said that he thought “the fact that Tupac’s message is about finding the place where you can speak truth makes it very relatable” though he said he has little clue how it will be received.
“I’ve wondered many times: Will people be offended? Will they be nervous? Or will they applaud what we’re doing?”
The show took an unexpected path to Broadway. Afeni Shakur, a former activist who zealously guards her son’s legacy, was convinced by Leon and producer Eric Gold that a Broadway show was an ideal vehicle for Shakur’s message. (A biopic film about Shakur has been entangled in development and legal delays for years.) Leon then reached out to Kreidler, cherishing his outsider perspective and overriding his objections that, as Kreidler put it, "I'm the last guy you want doing this."
As it turns out, Kreidler had been turned on to Shakur’s music by, of all people, August Wilson, who when they were working on a show in 2001 saw the late playwright go out and buy Kreidler the rapper’s entire canon mid-rehearsal. Wilson didn’t let Kreidler return until he had listened to all of it.
The writer eventually relented to Leon’s persuasions, but it still took years of workshopping and numerous casting sessions before they felt they had it right -- a process elongated by Leon's insistence that many of the performers come from the kinds of places Shakur was rapping about. At a preview performance several weeks ago, Leon still had several pages of notes, and the director described late-night sessions as recently as a few days ago in which he and Kreidler "beat each other up" to find a tone that was both hard-hitting and accessible.
How their efforts will be received remains to be seen. Already the show has attracted a mix of everyday fans and glitterati; in one recent performance, Chris Rock and Bobby Cannavale turned up, sitting alongside a few exuberant Shakur aficionados who rapped along with every word.
Reviews have been decent if not overwhelmingly positive. The staging and the musical numbers have generally been hailed as the show's strongest suit. The book has been less praised. But commercial audiences can be a tough sell in any event. Many Broadway consumers shell out $100 or more for escapism, especially in the summer, not dispiriting messages about urban blight. The show has some uplift but avoids happy endings or neat conclusions.
Players say that the improbability of the venue is precisely what makes it the right place to stage this show. “This is what theater should be about. Even Broadway theater,” Williams said.
Afeni Shakur attended a preview performance last week and saw the completed show for the first time. After it ended, she spoke to the cast about her son’s mission and how the show carried it on. Many welled up.
"Look at how far we've come,” Boone said, as he recalled the experience. “Look at what she represents. We’ve gone from civil rights to rap music to Broadway. I mean, come on man. Tupac is on Broadway.”