To Be A Shakespearean Actor
Although rap was Tupac’s true love, the variety of music he listened to was amazing. This became clear to me one Saturday morning when he, Richard, and I sat around the living room of the apartment in our boxer shorts and undershirts talking about music. [Richard was an older white roommate who liked Tupac so much that he allowed Tupac to stay at the Reservoir Hill apartment with the understanding that Tupac would pay $350 a month. Tupac and I paid that together with the money we made as busboys at the Fish Market Restaurant.] Richard was definitely a cool guy, who had a pleasant disposition and a free-flowing approach to life. His bedroom door was never closed, even when his girlfriend was in there with him. In the mornings I would see them lying on a single mattress on the floor (no box spring underneath), still asleep. I showed him respect, and he was always cool to me. No matter how much time I spent there at the apartment, he never gave me even the slightest hint of a bad vibe. We periodically had chill sessions when he was around (which wasn’t a whole lot). And when I wasn’t there, he and Tupac would bond.
In this Saturday morning discussion, Tupac floated along with Richard easily, unmoved by any of his older roommates' detours in various directions that were completely unfamiliar to me. Despite Richard’s dramatically different background and social orientation, Tupac never once lost his footing, and comfortably expounded upon many of the different artists who came up over the course of the conversation which spanned the full spectrum. From LL Cool J to Peter Gabriel, and Sun Ra and Jimi Hendrix to Eric Clapton and Muddy Waters, Tupac had something meaningful to say. I tried to imagine where he had gotten this exposure, how he had become so familiar with all of the divergent artists, but was unsuccessful. The picture of him listening to much of this stuff in his mom’s apartment did not fit, nor could I see it occurring up in New York among his family or friends up there (whom I would later meet). In fact this is still a mystery to me. The best answer I have managed is that he absorbed it all in a few months of his residence at the apartment. There the large collections of the two older roommates (Richard and John’s brother) would have been available to him and played regularly in the apartment.
It wasn’t just the variety of music to which Tupac listened that struck me, but the fact that he was genuinely interested in and knowledgeable about the music, and the various artists behind it. Richard played the role of DJ through the discussion, putting on a succession of different records that they would then discuss and critique after hearing only a few bars. I specifically remember Tupac talking about Tracy Chapman. He felt she was a musical genius. After quoting several lyrics from a favorite song of hers, he concluded, “That’s a true poet.”
Tupac was definitely a sponge of amazing efficacy, particularly with information at all dealing with either of his two loves in life: rap and acting. As an actor, the ease with which Tupac remembered lines was incredible, and his knowledge of craft impressive. When I asked him one afternoon the type of actor he wished to be, his reply was immediate: “A Shakespearean actor.” He said this without emotion, from a windowsill at the fore of the apartment, not breaking his passive yet focused gaze outward.
“A what?!” I replied, taken aback. And he repeated himself. “Why?! They don’t make any money.” I was thoroughly confused. The Tupac I knew was destined for far greater things than low budget productions in small playhouses. I envisioned him marching through the entertainment industry to some star-spangled movie or TV career, and untold millions. And I just assumed that his vision for himself was twice as grand as any I could conjure for him. His reply was disappointingly anticlimactic, and downright troubling.
He calmly informed me that Shakespearean actors were the very best in the world. That Shakespeare could not be faked. And that great skill and training were required of those so ambitious as to attempt the material. At that moment I envisioned a painting of him dressed in Renaissance attire, wit ruffled collar, tights, and all. I told him of the idea, and that I would call the painting “Shakurspeare.” He jokingly stiffened into a formal pose, throwing his nose in the air and following it with a gaze, clutching the rap pad that had been in his hand. I told him to hold the pose and grabbed my own notepad from the coffee table. I did a quick pen sketch to show off my skills. It was the first drawing I did of him. We laughed about it afterward.
This quiet maturity of his, so fundamental a part of his lore, showed itself often, gaining him advocates in interesting places. When as a new student he selected Don McLean’s Vincent for his acting assignment at age 15, the head of the theatre department, Donald Hicken (whom Tupac would later credit as the sole person at the school to be genuinely interested and concerned), found it a surprising choice and asked the young student why he had selected the piece. Tupac replied that he related to a van Gogh because people did not understand him.
Despite my extensive study of van Gogh in my visual art classes, the mention of his name always evoked in me the same thought: a vision of the sandy blond, middle-aged artist taking a sharp knife to his ear, and the resultant blood flowing down his pale, freckled neck. I had never really thought much more about him. But when I later learned of Tupac’s curious assignment from Donald Hicken, I became curious about what it was he saw in this particular piece, this artistic rendering of the historical and personal significance of van Gogh. Reading the piece, I saw the answer. The refrain alone painted a picture that I could feel a young, 15-year-old Tupac connecting with strongly.
Tupac saw himself as Vincent, with something to say so incredibly true, in a world so incredibly off course, that no one was prepared to hear it.
Excerpt is provided by courtesy of Author Darrin Keith Bastfield. © Copyright 2001. All Rights Reserved.
For more on the life and death of Tupac Shakur, watch 'Who Killed Tupac?' on Tuesdays at 10pm on A&E.