"Rap is a confessional form," says Cleveland playwright Michael Oatman. "Tupac [Shakur] rhymed a lot about street life and the African-American condition, about his own life, how he came up. He took it to another level, talking about his sins and shortcomings."
Oatman, who is playwright in residence at Karamu House, explores the controversial rapper's life in two plays premiering on local stages this month, almost 13 years after his death.
Oatman recalls that he was on his way to work when he heard that Shakur had died in 1996. "It was shock beyond shock," he says. "I loved his music as a kid. His was the soundtrack to my life as I came of age."
Shakur's confessional lyrics and his use of music to wage the east coast vs. west coast rivalry with rapper Biggie Smalls made for a complicated soundtrack. He was a gifted word-slinger and multi-platinum-selling recording artist in steady contact with the criminal justice system. His interactions with the law ranged from a $10 million civil suit against the Oakland Police Department (in which he claimed that police beat him for jaywalking) to a wrongful death suit (after a stray bullet from a shootout between his crew and another killed a six-year old child) to prison time for sexual assault (after a woman he'd had sex with claimed he subsequently encouraged his entourage to gang-rape her). The sexual assault conviction eventually led Shakur to Death Row Records when CEO Suge Knight posted his bail in exchange for a three-album commitment to the label.
Shakur survived a shooting in 1994, which added fuel to the coast vs. coast conflict (because there were rumors that Smalls was involved.) He was not so lucky two years later. The shooting that killed him may have been retaliation for an assault by Shakur earlier in the night.
Oatman says he took up Shakur as a subject when his "boss," Karamu artistic director Terrence Spivey, suggested it. "I said, Of course I should write a piece about Tupac. Why haven't I done it before? He is this generation's Miles Davis, my version of Johnny Cash."
So Oatman wrote two plays, to give his boss a choice. Spivey chose to produce Before I Die: The War Against Tupac Shakur for Karamu's Ghostlight series, with Hassan Rogers directing. The play is set in a hotel room in Las Vegas in 1996, just days before Shakur's death. "He's isolated and depressed, trying to arrange a meeting with Biggie," says Oatman. In the play, Shakur is trying to help heal the east coast/west coast rift between rap's biggest stars.
Oatman says Shakur gave mixed signals as to whether he wanted to end the rivalry. But in this play, he's giving it a try. The playwright mined the rapper's words — as well as news accounts of his life and death — as background. He invented a couple of characters to help tell the story: Rome represents the street life that shaped Shakur life and art; Charlene is a groupie who is also a lawyer. She represents the strong women Shakur liked to surround himself with.
Oatman's second Tupac play, Drowning the Flame, will get a staged reading June 19 as part of Cain Park's Playwrights weekend. In it, Oatman again uses known facts to explore real characters in an imagined situation — in this case, a love triangle among Shakur, Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith. Shakur and Pinkett Smith were classmates and close friends at the Baltimore School of the Arts. Oatman says the play grew from a recorded interview after Shakur's death, in which Pinkett Smith reflects on their relationship. They'd been in an argument and weren't speaking at the time he was murdered, but they still loved each other.
"After viewing that clip, I felt that the pain emanating from the video might have come from a relationship that had become something more than a normal friendship," says Oatman. He found further inspiration in another video of Shakur and Pinkett Smith dancing to a Will Smith song when they were teenagers.
"In the play, Jada is caught between Tupac, the bad boy, and Will Smith, the good guy," says Oatman. "I felt that this piece was emblematic of the romantic tension that a lot of young women face: Does she go with the bad boy who arouses passion, sexual desire and adventure? Or does she go with the good guy who will treat her right, make a good husband, provider and father?"