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In my adolescence, I alternated between listening to Tupac and Biggie, the sounds of their music emanating from my Walkman as the rappers philosophized about life, death, love, and the quest for self. Their music was so impactful that I still have the lyrics to “Keep Ya Head Up” memorized, and I once brought down the house with a parody version of Biggie Small’s “Juicy.” Even though so much of their music seemed preoccupied with themes of mortality, the two rappers seemed almost immortal. Then, on September 13, 1996, at the age of 25, Tupac was killed in a drive-by shooting. Six months later, on March 7, 1997, Biggie was shot while sitting in someone else’s car. Lyrics in their music seemed to have foreshadowed the inevitable.
Since their passings, there has been a lot written about the two men whose lives were immersed in violence as well as in verse. And, this week, writer Biko Eisen-Martin’s Pac and Biggie Are Dead is coming to the Mandell Theater.
A journey over too soon
A spin-off of Tom Stoppard’s classic Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Pac and Biggie are Dead offers a dramatic depiction of hip-hop, Black history, and self-exploration through the stories of those whose lives were cut short but their music lives on.
Director Carlo Campbell said that the show incorporates “homages to their lives, or the lack thereof, as well as indications of what their lives should have been, what they should have been searching for, which was brotherhood and the love inside of themselves, the love that is unmovable by all of these things that can encroach or infringe on a quite natural and organic part of who we are as humans.”
In my mind, one of the more impactful statements Biggie ever made was when he said, “We can’t change the world unless we change ourselves.” Pac and Biggie Are Dead offers an in-depth exploration of the internal struggle to find ourselves when surrounded by external messages of who we’re supposed to be. This, Campbell said, remains a struggle within hip-hop culture, one he himself faced as someone with extensive experience in the industry.
A co-production between Drexel University and Theatre in the X, the play is a collaborative effort that invites community engagement.
The search for self
Nick Anselmo, director of theater and Mandell professionals in residence programs, told me, “For Drexel, we were just really excited to collaborate with Theater in the X … they're also a part of our community in West Philadelphia, and we really wanted to embrace that, and the idea of Tupac and Biggie, we thought would activate a college audience and appeal to a college crowd to come and enjoy theater.”
“The show is pomp and circumstance,” Campbell explained. “At a certain point, the search for self takes primacy over the search for show. Let’s not go to the show without finding out who we are. I know it’s a symbol, but it’s real to me.” It ought to be real to all of us. And, at the same time, it seems wonderfully ironic to go to a show that asks its audience to prioritize self-exploration rather than the “pomp and circumstance.” “To me, theater teaches us to stop for a moment and really connect and communicate, and I love that our students get to delve into this new world,” Anselmo said.
What, When, Where
Pac and Biggie Are Dead. By Biko Eisen-Martin, directed by Carlo Campbell. $15-$25; free for Theatre in the X supporters with need and $3 for Access Card holders. Through November 19, 2022, at the Mandell Theater, 3220 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 895-2528 or theatreinthex.com.
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