Actress Saycon Sengbloh stars in the new Broadway musical Holler If Ya Hear Me, based on the lyrics of slain rapper Tupac Shakur. The show uses Tupac's music and poetry to tell the story of life in the inner city—its slogan is: “The music is Tupac. The story is now.”
Sengbloh plays Corinne, a woman torn between reuniting with her old lover John (played by poet Saul Williams), who has just returned from prison, or continuing her relationship with his once best friend. The musical also tackles overarching themes around gun violence and poverty in the inner city. Sengbloh spoke with ESSENCE.com about rediscovering Tupac's music, and whether or not Broadway is ready for the rapper's raw style of storytelling.
ESSENCE.com: You've been in a few really memorable moments on Broadway, like Motown: The Musical, Wicked, Fela and now this. What do you hope for this show?
Saycon Sengbloh: For every show that you do, you hope that it does well. You want the most for it. You want it to have a life and longevity. This show is associated with Tupac Shakur and I want it to be brought up as a part of his legacy whenever his work is discussed. I want this show to be something that people think of and keep in mind whenever they're ready to just talk about the controversial side.
Were you familiar with Tupac's music before this?
Oh yeah, I was a big fan. It's funny, one of the songs that I get to do on the show with the girls, "Keep Your Head Up," is one of my favorite Tupac songs. And there are others that aren't even in the show.
I thought I was a Tupac fan, but watching this show, I started thinking that maybe I wasn’t. I had no idea of some of the songs in the show.
I felt the same way. There were the huge international hits like "California Love," but there were certain songs that were huge in other cities that may not have been a hit everywhere. I grew up in Atlanta, so there were songs that were like really huge in L.A. that weren't necessarily big in Atlanta. During the show, I said the same thing to myself, 'Man, I must not really be a fan, because I didn't even know this song. What kind of fan am I?'
The show's playwright Todd Kreidler recently recalled August Wilson saying something like, ‘There's nothing in your life that's not contained in Tupac’s music,’ which is really profound, because watching this show, you see that he really touched on everything in his music.
Literally. He has some type of song on every single topic of life—from art, culture, music, paying bills, death, life, birth, abortion. I don't know that there's a topic that he hasn't discussed. He almost tells stories like fables, in a way, like the song “Dopefiend's Diner,” it almost feels like a fable in the 'hood.
When the women in cast perform “Keep Your Head Up,” it almost feels like a feminist anthem.
Isn't it funny, when you hear it coming out of a woman's mouth? It sounds so different. Those are [Tupac’s] lyrics. We didn't change anything. When he said, And since we all came from a woman/ Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman/ I wonder why we take from our women/ Why we rape our women, do we hate our women? It's really interesting to hear those lyrics coming out of a woman's mouth. It makes them feel so different. They're poignant anyway, but it's almost as if he was writing like a woman.
The show doesn't censor Tupac's lyrics at all.
There was a point during one of the workshops where they changed a couple things and Afeni Shakur [Tupac's mom and executive producer of the musical] said no. Either you do it or you don't. The lyrics have to be full and true.
Do you think Broadway audiences will be ready?
If you go right down the street to Book of Mormon, they're singing a song every night called "F**k You God." People watch The Wire, you have Broadway shows like Rent, where there are gay and lesbian characters. There's language. Chris Rock was in a show called The Motherf****r with the Hat. Broadway is ready, definitely ready.
Holler If Ya Hear me opens at the Palace Theater in New York City this Thursday, June 19.