The process of rebranding is familiar in the advertising world, with Philip Morris trying to shake its connection to cancer sticks by calling itself Altria. Who can get mad at something called Altria?
But you don't often see plays being rebranded like Eclipse: The War Between PAC and B.I.G., now at Karamu. A year ago, Michael Oatman's play was called Before I Die: The War Against Tupac Shakur, and it showed great promise. But the reborn version of this rap face-off, directed by Tony Sias, is about as successful as New Coke. It retains some of the strengths (and weaknesses) of the prior production, while finding too many fresh ways to fall short.
It's built around a meeting Tupac wants to have with Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G. Pac believes he was set up to be shot and robbed by Biggie at a recording studio a couple of years earlier. Shakur wants to clear the air with his former associate and put to rest the escalating feud between the east-coast and west-coast hip-hop worlds.
This is fertile material for a play, but playwright Oatman begins the 75-minute work by having Tupac kvetch about his miserable life as a celebrity. Speaking to the audience, he moans, "It's hard to have everyone looking at you and wanting something."
Since this is presented in lecture form rather than through dialogue and character development, it's hard to empathize. By telling and not showing, Pac becomes a boring professor of his own ideology. And even when he scores intellectual points (his argument about the hypocrisy of those who demean his rap lyrics), it feels more like a debating success than a gripping theatrical moment.
Things look up when Biggie arrives at Pac's Vegas penthouse and starts trading "Nigga, fuck you"s with his former pal and current competitor. As played by Mike Brown, who handled the same role last year, B.I.G. is smooth, funny and beautifully modulated. Oatman gives Biggie most of the wry lines as he tries to calm down the nervous and paranoid Pac: "These new-age gangstas are sensitive. Maybe he needs a hug or something."
As Tupac, Johnathon Jackson is too often over the top in registering his character's free-floating neuroses, and he never believably establishes Pac's credentials as an original thinker. He just seems angry and loud, instead of tormented and haunted. In a much smaller role, Kenny Parker is properly obnoxious and sleazy as Pac's promoter Marion "Suge" Knight.
Oddly, even though this version is 15 minutes shorter than last year's, it seems even more repetitive and circular. This is partly due to the absence of a female character who added dimension to the earlier production.
But the main problem is that, 45 minutes in, there is virtually no dramatic arc remaining. Pac and Biggie are chatting; the feud seems to have been squelched. And by then, even the tragic coda can't save this meandering script from strangling itself to death.