The buzziest production hitting Broadway this summer is “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” which adopts the music and lyrics of celebrated rapper Tupac Shakur. Although the soundtrack will be familiar, the plot follows a fictional storyline. It’s about young men in the Midwest struggling with love (both familial and romantic) while navigating life on the streets. We spoke with lead Christopher Jackson (“Bronx Bombers,” “After Midnight”) ahead of opening night, June 16.
Everyone is asking: If it’s not a Tupac biography, what’s “Holler” actually about?
It was inspired by Tupac’s music and written by Todd Kreidler, about a character named Vertus who is waking up and coming to terms with the fact that his best friend is back from jail. He had a really big problem with some of the decisions he had to make regarding his friend and his girlfriend and his mother, and on behalf of his brothers, so lots of stuff happening in a very short amount of time.
Is it intimidating to present Tupac’s music in this format?
No, it’s fun! I’ve been a fan of his my whole life, so to be telling the story using his lyrics and his music is pretty fulfilling for me. As an actor who grew up in the hip-hop generation, it’s great to be a part of another show that highlights this culture in the '70s and exposes a world to the world of Broadway, the storytelling aspect of what hip-hop really has become and all it has been.
How does hip-hop fit on Broadway?
Hip-hop is obviously one of the greatest cultural movements of my generation. I think it's great theater just on record, in terms of the storytelling aspect, the personalities that exist in it, the musical influences and the way that it's affected just about every aspect of our culture. I think it's the natural progression to see it on the Broadway stage. ... Of course there are more traditional styles, musically, but to characterize something as a Broadway show, I think that whole paradigm has shifted. You've got jazz musicals like "After Midnight,” you've got hip-hop like "In the Heights." I think finally Broadway is starting to reflect our culture in a larger sense and developing a larger audience in the process.
And you’re introducing his music to a new generation.
A lot of people bring up the fact that it's the young people that will come out —but folks in their 30s and 40s and even their 50s listen to hip-hop as well. It's always just sort of been seen as a young culture, but Jay-Z’s 38! And he's arguably one of the most popular artists in the world. I don't think that it's just for 15-year-old kids. We're telling the story that he went through some very serious life issues, and we've selected the kinds of things folks are going through every day.
Well, Tupac's is a story of his life. So you’ve taken an inner city life and transposed it into a story about a Midwestern life — the messages can resonate with anybody.
I think that’s the story of hip-hop. I grew up in southern Illinois; I didn't have a lot of stuff in common with these young guys that came out of South Central L.A. The thing that was universal to us was that there were hard times everywhere. The music was reflecting what they were going through in their daily lives and what they were seeing in their immediate surroundings. I think everybody can relate to that one way or the other.
How do you feel with the opening night rapidly approaching?
I'm more concerned with what's happening today. We're still in rehearsals, still in previews. It's great to get it out in front of people. It feels great to know that it's not just our own, it's not just some secret that we're holding on to anymore, that folks can come and take a look at what we're working on.
Who do you think is going to be the immediate crowd coming in?
Obviously fans of [Tupac] are going to come and hear his music. I think that the traditional Broadway fan is going to enjoy it because it's a really strong story, a really strong cast, and it's the kind of show I think is entertaining and also thought provoking. You know Tupac was nothing if not an activist. He was an underdog. And I think that the spirit of Tupac will shine through. I think that anybody who loves theater is going to love to see this. Certainly Tupac fans are going to love it.