Convicted of sexual abuse, charged with shooting two off-duty police officers, reported to have assaulted the codirector of Menace II Society, gangsta rap icon Tupac Shakur is a complex and problematic figure. His father was a Black Panther who spent his son’s entire life in prison—released, sadly, a week or so after the 25-year-old was killed in a 1996 drive-by shooting. Shakur’s mother, addicted to crack cocaine in the ’90s, had been a militant activist in the ’60s and ’70s.
The NYC-born Shakur began his career with L.A. jesters Digital Underground. His subsequent solo work infused West Coast gangsta rap with sanctimony and sentiment to the ping of cash registers worldwide, garnering two chart-topping albums. But his martyr complex and violent streak helped escalate hip-hop tribalism to its highest tragedy—Shakur’s murder and the subsequent revenge killing of Biggie Smalls, a/k/a the Notorious B.I.G. Convinced that his erstwhile friend Smalls was responsible for a 1994 shooting in which Shakur sustained five bullet wounds, the multiply tattooed hothead cried out for revenge on a dis called “Hit ‘Em Up,” a five-minute-and-12-second death threat set to music. After he was signed to Death Row Records, a veritable Congo of rap notorious for the criminal activities of its artist roster, Shakur’s murder upset millions, but surprised few.
How then to represent onstage a life that raises so many questions? Michael Develle Winn’s Up Against the Wind, subtitled “a rhapsody imagined from the life of Tupac Shakur,” offers almost nothing but wrong answers. The most wrong of these is a continuation of Shakur’s own aims—to paint the controversial man, whose million-selling albums had self-aggrandizing titles like Me Against the World, as a victim of the system. Less wrong but still off-base are the attempts to canonize Shakur as a tragic hero, visionary, and leader. Nowhere in the play do the simpler facts of his existence—his musicianship, his lyric-writing—get the consideration they deserve. Where’s Behind the Music when you need it?
The play opens just after Shakur’s sex-abuse arrest, as he’s being interrogated by a black cop (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who quickly reveals himself to be both moralizing father figure and foil. As Shakur (Anthony Mackie) describes the sex-assault incident, Winn undermines the female accuser’s credibility by having this scorned hoochie bumrush Shakur’s narrative and clumsily tell her side of the story. Yet the protagonist’s rebuttals are no more convincing. “I didn’t do shit!” he declares. “You gave me the pussy!” That, sadly, is the extent of his eloquence in this play—and honey, there are two more hours of digression and irrelevance to go! Scenes of Shakur trying to get Interscope president Jimmy Iovine to spring him from jail suggest that the playwright knows next to nothing about how the music business works. (No lawyers? No publicists? What is this, Dancer in the Dark?) Let alone how its executives talk when not in made-for-TV biopics. In lieu of nuanced or impassioned writing, Winn rather cheaply tries to prove Shakur’s goodness by making his critics look silly, like the newscasters who pronounce his name “Shaker.”
Midway through, when Kevin Daniels’s menacing Suge Knight all but literally becomes Mephistopheles to Shakur’s Faust, it’s too little, too late, and wrong again. Knight aside, Shakur was his own Mephistopheles, one who played the system as much as it played him. If he was the victim of anything, it was ghetto fabulousness—an inability to reconcile his need to “keep it real” with his Negro-riche status. Shakur had more in common with the philosopher whose name he misspelled as his alter ego, Makaveli.
All praise must go to God that the cast held any of this together. Pity poor Hazelle Goodman, who, while playing Shakur’s mother, must slough her way through pseudo-lyrical truisms like “passion without faith is lethal,” and Jesse J. Perez, who squeezes some pathos from Shakur’s confidant, Jerome.
In The Gathering, solo performer Will Power’s alter egos are of less questionable character than Tupac Shakur’s. Power himself is a likable, lanky dude with abundant charisma, arising mainly from a skinny-guy gift for movement and an eagerness to please that handily floods the downstairs space at P.S. 122. Power initially zips through a formally curious solo piece in which he scat-sings politically progressive monologues corresponding to jazz instruments—”you can’t be a woman-hater and a bass-lover,” goes one. In his next segment Power plays all the black men in a barbershop. His charm and fluid change-ups can’t mask the fact that his sketch-comedy reverend and barber are as stale as last Christmas’s corn bread. Frustratingly, Power renders the young gay character, who could potentially freshen the proceedings, so cautiously as to be dull. Similarly nonlinear, his sprawling portrayal of a ragtag basketball team drags on with very low stakes. No one who has worked with Sarah Jones should be able to get away with a piece this simple and static. Power could use a dose of Tupac Shakur’s complexity. But hold the bullets, please.