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It takes a brave company to produce a play about Tupac Shakur. What market might it appeal to? How many people in Kendall can say they enjoy Tupac and theater? If you go to Amazon.com and purchase Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z., the website does not inform you that "Customers who bought this item also bought Carousel." No: The website recommends Thug Life. At a guess, I'd say most of the people in Kendall with record collections big enough for both Shakur and Hammerstein are the ones involved with Ground Up & Rising's production of Meshaun Lebrone Arnold's The Hate U Gave: The Tupac Shakur Story.
This sad fact is just the kind of thing Tupac's ghost rails against in The Hate U Gave, a play that is probably the closest anybody has come to doing something about the disparity. This remarkable show is the best possible advertisement for both the form and its subject. Writer/star Arnold is some kind of minor prophet, elucidating manifold subtleties of human truth with effortless speed and force, pummeling your guts and breaking your heart before he goes to work on your head. If rap people see this, they'll say, "Holy shit! Plays have balls!" If theater people see this, they'll say, "Holy shit! Rap people are deep!" And though as a white dude I cannot know for sure, I suspect that people of all aesthetic persuasions, colors, and political philosophies will walk away from the show with an enlarged perspective on white-black relations.
Tupac Shakur was an artist whose creative drive was motivated by rage over the ugliest of human alienations. Watching The Hate U Gave or listening to Tupac's oeuvre, I get the sense he was equally bugged by alienation in all of its forms — the ones that spring from gender, age, and basic human fear as well as those that stem from "race." But in his own eyes and the eyes of the world, Tupac was black before he was anything else, and the alienation that exists between colors symbolized for him, as it does for most of us, the power of division at its lowest and most baffling. Tupac understood all of this, but it's difficult to see The Hate U Gave without wondering if Arnold understands it more.
The Hate U Gave is no piece of fanboy adulation. It's easy to leave Ground Up & Rising's digs with immense respect for Arnold but a nagging disappointment in his subject. Arnold's Tupac is no transcendent character. He's smart and sympathetic, but unable to rise above the very evil he despises. He's heartbroken that the people around him cannot respect the part of him that loves Shakespeare and has personal aspirations beyond continual "hardness." He deplores the culture that made them that way. But it's a culture for which he is partially responsible, and which will kill him in the end.
If giving Tupac moral immunity is too easy, then blaming him for the ills of urban culture is even easier, and The Hate U Gave is largely a search for a more satisfying culprit. The play finds Tupac, jittery and evidently lonesome, at some point during his 1995 prison sentence (he was convicted of molesting a woman, a charge he denied). He tries to explain his philosophy of life. Biography doesn't come into the plot much — Arnold's Tupac is uninterested in rehashing his bicoastal upbringing, his turbulent relationship with his activist/Black Panther/crack addict mother, his introduction to theater and ballet, his brief career as a classical actor, the specifics of his music career, or even the shooting that briefly confined him to a wheelchair the day before he was sentenced to prison (this, sadly, would not be the last time Tupac's life was disrupted by gunfire). Instead, he is mad to talk about ideas — the same ones he tried, semi-successfully, to express on record.
Tupac elucidates concept after concept that we all understand on a gut level but which we've never heard adequately expressed. Lamenting the lack of true love in the macho milieu of urban culture, he wonders, "How can you love me if you look at me and all you see is nothingness ... a deadbeat ... another baby-making machine? How can I love you if I look at you and all I can see is a ho?" Suck on that one awhile. How much heartbreak and how many shattered lives are explained in just those two questions? And why did I have to go to Kendall to hear somebody make the point?
The play shifts from its conversational format into something more abstract. Nameless archetypal characters arrive to challenge Tupac — to arrest him or shoot him or make him account for himself. A Greek chorus of three girls surrounds the rapper, admonishing him, reading fan mail, declaiming poetry. The Greek aspect of the play is actually both undercooked and overacted; I found myself groaning internally every time the girls appeared before the footlights, knowing Arnold's profundity was about to give way to mere hamminess.
But the rest of the show is strong enough to make this complaint meaningless. The value here is all Arnold: his muscular, fast-talking, LOL-funny, and achingly sad portrayal, as well as his breathlessly brilliant writing. If The Hate U Gave is about Tupac's search for a cultural culprit, Arnold's conclusions about that culprit's identity are quite different from the ones his character arrives at. In the play, Tupac dies in a frenzy, casting invective in all directions and trying his best to ignore his inability to do anything except reify the culture he despised. Arnold is more generous — in race-relations terms, he's more Booker T. Washington than Professor Griff — and his perpetrator is both less villainous and more difficult to pin down. Leaving The Hate U Gave, I got the sense that everybody is the culprit, that nobody is fully free to be otherwise, and that neither Arnold nor I nor anybody can point a finger without three more fingers pointing right back at us.