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A CurtainUp Review
Up Against the Wind
by Les Gutman
By this time, my dick was as hard as new math.
Without faith, passion is lethal.
his mother, Alfeni
Those of us who go to the theater quite a bit get to see a lot of actors acting. We have far fewer opportunities, however, to see a performer who so inhabits a character that the observable line between actor and character melts away before our eyes. Such is the nature of Anthony Mackie's realization of Tupac Shakur onstage at New York Theatre Workshop, and it's the centerpiece of this otherwise extraordinary production.
Up Against the Wind began as a student presentation at Julliard in 1999; its playwright, Michael Develle Winn, is a graduate of the Lila Acheson Wallace playwrights program there. It has been nurtured into this premiere by NYTW. Reaching a judgment on Shakur is not uncontroversial: on the one hand, he can be dismissed as a gangster, a rap music thug; on the other, he can be seen as a victim of his environment. Winn has shielded himself somewhat by casting the play as "a rhapsody imagined from the life of Tupac Shakur" (the playbill also includes a note reminding us it "is not intended to be a depiction of actual events"). What we get is a tragedy, powerful, moving, fast-paced and raw, accented but not overwhelmed by the rap music that propelled the multi-platinum recording artist into the fast lane.
We first meet Tupac in the mid-90's, his career flying, when he finds himself charged with sexual abuse ("a set up," he insists) and sent to jail. Winn beautifully weaves in the out-of-the-limelight influences underpinning the man: his mother, Alfeni (Hazelle Goodman), a Black Panther, jailed while pregnant with him, who imbued him with her revolutionary philosophy and later, as a crack addict, disheartened him; his sister, Sekyiwa (Tracie Thoms); and his best friend, and conscience, Jerome (Jesse J. Parker). To flesh out Tupac's story, Winn employs a black police detective (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), who also conveys the frustrations of an older generation that "fought the good fight on civil rights" and can't now process the angry, disdainful rhetoric Tupac and his contemporaries articulate, in their music and otherwise.
Although much of the play focuses on the interior story, Winn does a marvelous job of integrating Tupac's public persona. We thus see his fans going gaga (not the rap expression) over him, and also get a clear picture of his critics, complaining about his untoward influence and the misogyny his music suggests. The flavor of hip-hop permeates -- to the point that those basically unfamiliar with the phenomenon (of which there were quite a few the night I attended) leave far better informed, even if they didn't stop at Virgin to pick up a copy of Me Against the World on the way home.
In the high stakes world of the recording industry, Up Against the Wind explores the intoxication of celebrity status, the force of competition, the exercise of control (over money and everything else) and the vagaries of trust. It reveals the dangerous dance that pits record executives against one another (here, the (white) president of Warner's Interscope records, Jimmy Iovine (Joseph Siravo) and Suge Knight (Kevin Daniels), the infamous head of Death Row Records), and the receding influence of family and friends. There are a great many choices to be made, and Winn tries hard to examine them without overtly condoning or condemning.
Rosemary K. Andress, late of Julliard's directing program, keeps the proceedings robust and yet focused. For those who know the work of Michael Kahn (head of Julliard's drama department), this apple has not fallen far from the tree. She uses an almost bare stage (set design, including some very interestingly employed clear screens on casters, by Narelle Sissons) as her playing field, under (and astride) emphatic lighting by Peter West. Olu-Orondava Mumford's costumes are fine, with a bit of occasional eccentricity mixed in with the expected. Jerry Yager's sound work deserves kudos: it conveys the power of the music without blowing us all out onto East 4th Street, and it never loses the dialogue along the way.
Performances overall were quite good. In addition to Mackie's tour-de-force, I especially liked Hazelle Goodman as his mother, in a performance that ranged from defiant to debilitated, poignant to poetic. Jesse Perez's Jerome also impressed -- humorous yet strongly and believably felt -- as did the strong Isiah Whitlock. Less successful, for quite different reasons, were the two record executives: Siravo being too caricatured, Daniels too flat and ungrounded.
Minor quibbles aside, Up Against the Wind succeeds on just about every level. It is compelling both in its storytelling and as theater. It informs eloquently, and adds mightily to our dramatic literature. Bravo.
UP AGAINST THE WIND
by Michael Develle Winn
Directed by Rosemary K. Andress
starring Anthony Mackie with Olubunmi Banjoko, David Brown, Jr., Kevin Daniels, Hazelle Goodman, J.D. Jackson, Nashawn Kearse, Tracey A. Leigh, Jesse J. Perez, Christopher Rivera, Joseph Siravo, Tracie Thoms and Isiah Whitlock, Jr.
Set Design: Narelle Sissons
Costume Design: Olu-Orondava Mumford
Lighting Design: Peter West
Sound Design: Jerry M. Yager
Composer: Jonathan Sanborn
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes with one intermission
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street (2d Av./Bowery) Telephone (212) 239-6200
Tues. - Sat. @8, Sat. @3, Sun. @2 and 7; $45
Opening 4/2/01 no closing date announced
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 3/29/01 performance