It takes a high level of brashness and brilliance to embark on a journey to create a play about the enigmatic rapper Tupac Amaru Shakur. During Tupac's brief musical career a plethora of writers as well as political pundits either vilified or venerated him. His music has been dissected by inner city griots as well as ivory tower scholars. In light of all of the material about Tupac that is available, it is easy to believe that there in not much more to say about the rapper whose fire was extinguished fifteen years ago. Such a belief can be dismissed after seeing Christina Tyler and George Carroll's original play The Tragedy of Tupac Amaru Shakur or Who Shot Me? After a successful first run in September 2011, The Tragedy of Tupac returns to the New York theatrical community for four shows on November 2-3, 2011. This new production provides unique medium for exploring the rap, rage, and redemptive impact of Tupac's lyrics, life, and death.
This collaborative effort of George and Christina as producers and writers known as "The Entity" is inspiring for several reasons. It is uplifting to see a male and female writing team. Both of them have a Latino heritage: George is a Texas native with Mexican roots and Christina is a native New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent. The play is directed by Jessica Jennings, a Caucasian woman and she is assisted by Shanade Hernandez who also has a Latino background. The ages of the cast members span three decades and represent numerous racial and cultural backgrounds. Anyone who attends the theatre or watches television or film knows that such diversity is lacking in these mediums. The Tragedy of Tupac organically brings all of these wonderful parts together in such a tightly woven manner that it should serve as a model for other productions that strive to produce art that reflects the true faces of our society.
George's inspiration to write the play started as a challenge. The 36-year-old self-described rock 'n' roll guy and Tupac fan was on a road trip from Austin to Corpus Christie, Texas with friend. As he was listening to new hip-hop music, the songs bothered him because the lyrics seemed mindless. Over a series of road trips from Austin to Corpus Christie, George and his buddy played Tupac's music. George's mind began to sink into the world and words of Tupac while continuing to compare and contrast the songs to newer music in the rap and hip-hop genres. George continued to listen to music that he believed did not rise to the level of Tupac's gritty, thought-provoking lyricism. In the midst of their critical analysis and debate, George's buddy asked him if he had a plan to inject his musical argument into the mainstream. So George thought about it over a few months and began to write.
George sought after his former college classmate Christina Tyler as a collaborator. During college she concentrated her studies on theatre and Spanish. After college she obtained a master's degree and began teaching. Christina went on a sabbatical and shortly thereafter, George reached out to her and they started working on the play. She was very intrigued by Tupac's journey as an artist as well as the formation of his mother's identity as Afeni Shakur.
The playwrights stay true to Tupac's musical vocabulary. They do not shy away from the subject matter of his lyrics, his troubles with the law, or the infighting and underhanded behavior of the assorted personalities in the rap and hip-hop music business. The Tragedy of Tupac presents characters that are not usually portrayed on a New York stage or anywhere else. Controversial figures such as Louis Farrakhan (Channing Jackson), and Huey P. Newton (Hector L. Hicks) as well as Leila Steinberg (Meytal Novarro) are included in the play as major influences on his life and music. The role of Tupac's mother, Afeni, is passionately portrayed by Stepahnie LaCapra. Stephanie conveys the strong spirit of Afeni that made her a vocal member in the Black Panther Party as well as her despair when social and economic difficulties forced her into compromising situations. The diverse, multicultural ensemble cast adds to the sound and fury by punctuating the air with racially, politically, and sexually charged subject matter. Ultimately, the task of bringing back to life the essence of Tupac rests on the shoulders of Damian Bailey. Damian reaches out to the audience and grabs their attention, yet he hangs onto a level of vulnerability that makes Tupac seem more like a young, African American man speaking truth to power and less like a stone cold rebel without a cause.
The producers, actors, production team, and writers hope the play's impact and scope reverberate as powerfully as the lyrics and beats of Tupac's music. For them, The Tragedy of Tupac is an American play. It is an American story. In these times of high unemployment and economic disparity in America, Tupac seems more relevant than ever. Even the actors hope people will watch the play and picture in the their mind's eye Tupac walking alongside the likes of Kanye West or Russell Simmons at Zucotti Park with the Occupy Wall Street protestors. The playwrights see the play as a contribution to a greater cause. Tupac wanted changes to be made to his community so that people could be uplifted from poverty and despair. As a result of Tupac's voice, Christina and George want people to walk out of the play and feel that there is something they need to do to change themselves. They hope the play will spark a movement where people come together to make America a nation that will live up to its noble intentions.
The most powerful point made by the play is contained is its subtext: but for the discrimination, miseducation, and subjugation of certain classes of people in America, Tupac (as we knew him) would have never existed. Tupac was a product of his environment. He unabashedly spoke about the rage that carved a void in his soul and he told others like him that they were not alone. Tupac was not saint but he made sure to point out that the world was full of a lot of sinners, especially in his declaration "Only God Can Judge Me." The redemptive quality of his lyrics, life, and death are found in the creative energy of the people who are making this play possible. I believe Tupac would be pleased to see a play about his life presented by people who make artistic expression a priority while reflecting the essence of what is positive in our society.
Tupac will remain a force in our collective consciousness for years to come. The Tragedy of Tupac is helping to keep his voice alive. I look forward to the production's growth and expansion in the years to come.
The Triad NYC, 158 West 72nd Street, New York, NY 10023. Shows at 7pm and 9pm on November 2-3, 2011. Tickets can be purchased at www.brownpapertickets.com. If you miss this run of the show, find them on Facebook at the group link: The Tragedy of Tupac Amaru Shakur or Who Shot Me? A Tale in Two Acts.