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MESHAUN LABRONE talks to Tom Wicker about exploring the life of legendary American rapper 2Pac

Meshaun Labrone talks to Tom Wicker about exploring the life and times of legendary American rapper 2Pac in his one-man show Tupac Shakur – The Right To Remain.

Tupac Amaru Shakur was only 25 years old when he was killed in a hail of bullets in Nevada. Since his death, the controversial American rap artist best known as 2Pac has sold more than 75 million albums worldwide. His songs, which document angrily and passionately the consequences of inner-city poverty and racism, have influenced a generation of musicians. Rolling Stone Magazine lists him as one of the greatest artists of all time.

Now, American writer and actor Meshaun Labrone is bringing his one-man show Tupac Shakur – The Right To Remain to the UK. Set during Tupac’s imprisonment for alleged rape, this powerful theatrical experience seeks to address the question of who the rap artist really was. Weaving together projected video, images and Tupac’s own lyrics, it delves behind the myth to celebrate the value and impact of the man and his art.

Hi, Meshaun. With just a few weeks to go until you come to the UK, how are things going?
I’m just trying to keep it all together! Between now and the end of the show, I’ll probably be working off four hours of sleep a night. I have a lot of stuff going on right now, professionally and personally. It’s stressful, but it’s good stress. It’s like a woman giving birth, cussing out the father, saying, ‘don’t ever touch me again’, but after 58 hours she’s delivered and forgotten about all of that stuff.

Is this play your baby, then?
Yes, I guess you could say it is. From when I wrote it in 2004, until now, it’s been through so many transitions and changes that it’s about 17 years old at this point! I think it’s ready to mature.

Tupac is a controversial and heavily mythologized figure. Why did you choose such a complex subject for your first play?
It began with a very practical reason. When I decided to do the play, I was in my senior year at Florida Atlantic University. To graduate from the drama course, you have to find a character, living or dead, to write a one-man show on. When you do a monologue you really have to be passionate about the character. I considered a slew of people, like Sammy Davies Junior, but to the core of my being, Tupac felt like the perfect fit.

Because I remembered him as a teenager, growing up in the Nineties, and his message, which was misunderstood – even by me – during that time. I also knew his background and that his mother was in the Black Panther Party. My father wasn’t in the Black Panther Party but he was part of the civil rights movement. He did the whole summer of ’64 and ended up being thrown into a makeshift jail for hours. I remembered that story and what Tupac would say about his mother, so there was a similarity right there. Also, he was a poet and an actor, and I’m an actor.
The mythology around him is well deserved, at least for black men. In ‘Only God Can Judge Me’, which came out in the summer of ‘96, he says something to the effect that there are a million f**kers who feel just like him. I totally agree; many of us feel the way he did. But we don’t have the type of voice or the words to express it. That’s why I decided to write the play. And let me tell you, that script took on a mind of its own. It wrote itself. That man, his spirit – whatever you want to call it – was speaking through my arm and that pen.

The play takes place shortly after Tupac was charged with rape. Did you feel it was important to show him at a moment of crisis?
Yeah. I wanted to make sure that I fitted the play in that moment. Why? I worked as a corrections officer in Miami in the late Nineties. When a man is incarcerated, when you strip him of his house and keys, those things that mask and costume, and leave him with nothing but his thoughts, his regrets and his hopes for surviving the next day, you have the essence of that man. I didn’t want to put together a Tupac wearing the gold chain and the bandana. That’s an act. It’s something that was created by him and encouraged by the record company and us, the fans. I wanted to put him in a vulnerable state, because that’s where you get to the truth of the human being.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the play?
I’m hoping that people will really hear this young man’s message about the problems we face as a society. We look at great men like Martin Luther King and go, ‘Oh that was in the past.’ But we also have some great men today, who have stood up for freedom, justice and equality. And sometimes they get overlooked – it’s easy to look at Tupac and say that he was acting the fool, singing about this, that and the other. But why are people still talking about him now, years after he passed on? When I listen to his music, it’s so relevant to what we’re going through right now. The ‘Occupy’ protests around the globe haven’t just “happened.” It’s the same with the riots in London. These things aren’t accidents. It isn’t just about a bunch of kids taking the opportunity to act the fool. No, this has been brewing for a long time – and there are people among us, like Tupac, who are using poetry, theatre, movies and music to tell us things we need to pay attention to.

So, do you think Tupac anticipated the wave of mass action rippling around the globe?
Yes, of course. He’d been saying it, Ice Cube had been saying it – all of these modern-day griots. It amazes me that these guys sell so many records, but no one’s really been listening to them. People just love the beat. They’re not paying attention to the message! But it’s there in Tupac’s music, in the growth from his first album. 2Pacalypse Now was right up my alley, socially and politically. Then the next album came out and I was like, ‘Wow!’ It was great but it was really tough. And then he went back to a soulful, spiritual sound with Me against the World, a record of what I believe to be modern-day blues. I listened to it again recently, in preparation for the show, and it’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard. It speaks like he’s predicting his own death – and at the same time, the demise of all of us, particularly young black males.

If Tupac hadn’t died, what do you think he would be doing now?
I believe that if he was alive now he would either be in Obama’s cabinet or preparing to run for president himself, with his own political party. I believe that with everything I have in my being.

Tupac was frequently accused of inciting violence with his music, particularly against law enforcement. Is your play a reassessment of that?
I think so. I hope it’s going to bring some clarity to that, if audiences are willing to listen. The same thing was said about Malcolm X: that he was a prophet of hate, that the Black Panther Movement hated the police department and that they wanted to shoot cops. But the people that put that type of stuff out there are the ones who don’t want you to hear the truth. They want to confuse you, to discourage you from truly listening to what you’re being told. Tupac isn’t saying what he does about police officers without any evidence. It happened to him. In the play, I have him talk about not having a record before he made a record. You know what I mean? I’ve worked with the police and some of them shouldn’t be carrying a gun. Instead of looking to serve and protect, they’re looking to start trouble, to throw someone in jail. They need to be stripped of their power, which they’ve become addicted to, and become civilians again. Because even in 2011, some of them are like hunters in areas filled with wildlife. They just want trophies for their walls.

What do you think theatre’s role should be in society?
Theatre needs to be the ultimate and only entertainment for the people. It needs to our news reporter. It’s where you’re going to get the truth, where you’re going to be uplifted and where you’re going to be enlightened. I hate this whole American Idol and So You Can Dance worship. It cheapens this religion called performance. I do workshops for universities and colleges and it’s so amazing to be able to work with these students. Some of the things we show them literally lift them off the ground; they’re so enthralled and excited. They’ve never thought of acting or performing that way before. But sometimes I’ll talk to high schools kids and already they’re saying, ‘I want to get an agent’ or ‘I need to get some pictures done.’ So I tell them: ‘You need to make decision right now. Do you want to be a star or do you want to be an artist? If you want to be an artist, I can help you. If you want to be a star, you’ve got to get out of here.’

What prompted you to bring the play to the UK?
It feels like going home, even though I wasn’t born there. I visited for the first time in 2003. I’d never been out of the USA – I’d been in Miami doing my own theatre thing, in my own little bubble. But when I got there, it was as if a light had been turned on. I’d been acting since I was a kid, so it was just wonderful to be at the epicentre of modern theatre, to be in Stratford where Shakespeare, one of my heroes, grew up. What really did it for me, though, was seeing Mark Rylance at the Globe, in Richard II. It can be kind of complicated but I understood everything that was going on. I’d never experienced anything like it in my life; I began to shake and cry at this damn play! I thought something was wrong with me! Right then, I made up my mind that I was going to come back. And I vowed that I’d keep on coming back until I was able to perform at that level, on that stage, and create that effect in people. London is my heritage as a person who loves theatre as a religion.

So, this won’t be a one-off trip?
No. I’m hoping that someone will come to see the play that’ll be able take it to the next level. When I read about Katori Hall winning an Olivier Award for The Mountaintop, about the diverse array of actors and writers coming to London from the USA, I knew I was on the right path. If I could spend my life travelling back and forth, that would be wonderful. Mission accomplished.

Why did you choose Tara Theatre as the venue for the play? Was it because of its reputation for multiculturalism?
Yes. They’re a bold theatre. If you’re going to put on a jacket, it has to fit. You want to make sure that the audience is going to understand where you’re coming from. And you definitely want new people to come, too. Tara has been very supportive, and I hope that we’ll be able to continue working together in the future. My dream is to spend six months here and six in the UK, writing shows, holding workshops and training young actors. What’s been happening in London makes it the perfect time to present Tupac’s voice again – so that we can reflect on what’s occurred and make sure that it doesn’t happen again.

Tupac – The Right To Remain is at Tara Theatre from 1 November to 5 November. You can buy tickets here:

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