July 15, 2008

The Miami Herald Christine Dolen Column: Not Quite Something 2 Die 4 Yet, But . . .

By Christine Dolen, The Miami Herald

Jul. 15--Tupac Shakur's 25 short years of life were a study in extremes.

On the one hand, as a prodigiously talented teenager of modest means, he attended a performing arts high school and appeared in everything from Shakespeare to The Nutcracker. Though he dropped out of school, he was a voracious reader, a young man with wide-ranging intellectual curiosity and a poet.

On the other hand, the wealthy Shakur who fans knew cultivated a thuggish, violent image. He did jail time for sexual abuse, was a major combatant in the East Coast-West Coast rap wars, survived one shooting, died from another.

The many contradictory facets of a complicated man are on display in The Hate U Gave: The Tupac Shakur Story, the Ground Up & Rising world premiere of a play written by and starring Meshaun Arnold. Like the late rapper himself, the script and production have both obvious strengths and notable weaknesses.

The Shakur that Arnold gives his audiences is incarcerated, reflective, aggressive. He is doing time for that rape he says he didn't commit, talking to us as though we were his new cellmate, feeling haunted by memories and by conscience.

His language is raw, full of fury and defiance. He is paranoid (with good reason, as it turns out), seductive, political, confrontational. Physically and vocally expressive, radiating a tension between vulnerability and explosiveness, the actor makes his subject both unpredictable and watchable.

In adding a three-woman chorus and several male actors to the play, Arnold and director Arturo Fernandez have tried to deepen what began as a one-person show, as well as injecting some balance into The Hate U Gave. Good move, but the script still feels sketchy and unfinished.

One confrontation, which should remain a surprise, could become far more powerful if Arnold and the other actor pushed harder. The women, figures in Shakur's thoughts or memories, do challenge his Thug Life persona, but only Renata Ferreira has the acting chops to make her words hit home.

Staged with simplicity against the backdrop of an over-sized Shakur portrait, the production values -- lights that seem to fade too fast, meager props -- are less than impressive. For the story of a man who made his fortune in the music business, there's too little of the rapping Shakur in the play. And the rhythms of the production itself are off: The actors, Arnold included, allow silences that are far more awkward than artful.

Shakur's story is rich with potential drama. But The Hate U Gave is several rewrites away from truly mining those riches.

Christine Dolen is The Miami Herald's theater critic.


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