With 2023 marking the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, an old play finds new life in honoring one of the greatest MCs of all time. On Friday, Sept. 15, Homage 3: Illmatic brought Nas’s debut studio album to the stage in Brooklyn’s intimate Bed-Stuy Art House. Shaun Neblett finished writing the script in 2011 as part of a series of plays paying homage to classic hip-hop albums. The show begins with a disclaimer—it’s not meant to be an on-stage translation of Illmatic.
Neblett’s Homage 3, directed by Bianca LaVerne Jones, was borne from the spirit of the album. The show follows Ron (Thomas Walter Booker), a school gym teacher passionate about photography and grappling with the decision to pursue his dreams. His girlfriend (AhDream Smith) and the principal (Robbie Williams) of his school pull him from one end, counseling him to be practical and focus on his stable career. On the other hand, his roommate and friend Will (Travis Raeburn) is caught up in the life of a “street’s disciple”—a term often used by Nas, particularly as the title of his 2004 album. Once confronted by a disgruntled young man (Jordan Parks), Ron must confront the circumstances of his life, rather than passively accepting whatever comes his way.
Most of the play happens in two settings, Ron and Will’s home and the school where Ron works. The backdrop is simple: a ratty blue recliner sits behind a small table littered with alcohol bottles, joints, and two cameras. There’s a stool with a stereo boombox, and a school desk and chair. The actors weave through the audience and make good use of the 650-square-foot space, often close enough to touch. Booker, who has the most stage time, encompasses the bumbling ambivalence of Ron. Raeburn’s Will, an overly confident showman who earns most of the night’s laughs for his quips and largely unserious behavior, provides a striking contrast.
While the story is separate from Nas’s Illmatic, the play never veers too far from its inspiration. There are nods to various lines from the album, including Will proclaiming his dream has evolved from being a street’s disciple to being “out for dead presidents to represent me.” In borrowing from Nas’s “The World Is Yours,” Will reveals himself to be someone searching for status and money—whatever the cost may be. But where Will represents the dark underbelly of the crime, drugs, and violence that Nas raps about, Ron stands in for the rapper’s determination to follow his dreams despite everything holding him back. Projected backdrops that mimic the Queensbridge housing projects in Queens, where Nas grew up during the 70s and 80s, serve as transitions between scenes, along with snippets from the album.
Homage 3 is a celebration of many things: hip hop, the lasting contribution Nas made with Illmatic, the art of theater, and the importance of building a strong community. With a cast consisting mostly of New Yorkers performing a play inspired by a quintessentially New York album, the play fulfills Nas’s call from all those years ago—represent y’all, represent.
Cast: Thomas Walter Booker, Robbie Williams, Jordan Parks, Travis Raeburn, AhDream Smith
Crew: Shaun Neblett (writer), Bianca LaVerne Jones (director)