John Caviness (Saul Williams) has just been released from prison after six years. He returns home to the neighborhood where "all the little babies goin' crazy." Now that he is out, he wants nothing to do with the life he left behind. He's skeptical, bitter and jadedly sings "living life is but a dream." He finds work at a local auto-body shop run by Brian "Griffy" Griffin (Ben Thompson) whose father actually owns the shop but is dying. Griffy is white and John and Griffy's lives are strikingly different. When John points out that it's payday and asks Griffy "Ain't payday what we live for," Griffy's response is "I hope not." Their place in the world couldn't be starker in contrast.
Vertus (Christopher Jackson), a low-level drug dealer is having his territory honed in on by a rival gang, shaking him down and demanding payouts. In the cross-fire is his brother Benny (Donald Webber, Jr.), a simple kid who dreams of moving to California. Vertus and Benny's mother, Andrea (Tonya Pinkins) tells Vertus she doesn't want the money he has been leaving in her mailbox, what she wants is change. It has the intended impact as Vertus later walks away from an incendiary situation that could have put him in the ground, but it isn't he who ends up there.
The characters and their relationships to one another were not clearly delineated. You are forced to spend too much time trying to figure out how the characters are related. Throughout the show there is an old preacher (John Earl Jelks) who wanders the streets of the neighborhood yelling through a megaphone, "but on our block we still pray" (which I had to rely on a copy of the script to discern). It seems as though Kreidler assumed we knew that this man was John's father. It isn't clear until the second act when he thanks Corinne (Saycon Sengbloh), Vertus' on-again-off-again girlfriend, for taking care of his father. Granted, we see him earlier trying to get the old man to eat a sandwich but the connection isn't clear.
The creative team behind Hollerâ€¦ is a Broadway dream team. It is helmed by recent Tony award winner, director Kenny Leon ( A Raisin in the Sun) and choreographer Wayne Cilento (The Who's Tommy). Cilento's choreography mirrors the moves of young subway performers with their body part isolations and seemingly dislocated limbs.
Shakur's poetic lyrics, when you can understand them, paint a picture more readily than any set designer. But can they carry the weight of this entire show? And can this cast deliver them in a way that will hold the audience? Sorry to say they didn't hold this critic. Unfortunately, by the end of this two and a half hour musical, the drone of the delivery of the music numbed my senses and nothing the characters said or sang appealed to me emotionally.
The scenic elements of this show, designed by Edward Pierce, are rendered as hand-drawings that appear on portals that slide on and off stage. These are meant to represent John's own drawings which we see him scribbling into a sketch book throughout the show.
Will this show appeal to hip-hop aficionados (purists) or a mainstream Broadway audience? Only time will tell. They have attempted to connect two seemingly different worlds. It seems they might have been on to something here but wound up coating it with a Broadway veneer and characters who, despite their circumstances, don't inspire you to care about them.
I'm sorry this didn't move me more. Perhaps the most poignant line in the entire script, and the one more people need to hear is "killing somebody will fuck you up."