Rapper Tupac Shakur was a soulful and self-destructive force seen by some as a musical messiah. Others reviled him as a profane scoundrel who detested women and symbols of authority and whose death in a 1996 drive-by shooting was the result of his lifestyle.
Kwame Alexander, an Alexandria author and publisher, said his latest play, "The Seventh Son," hopes to blend the two prevailing attitudes into a fairer portrait of the enigmatic performer.
"The point is, let's look at the whole man," said Alexander, 31. "We don't look at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. just for his transgressions. We balance it with his 'I have a dream' speech."
The two-hour drama is at Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre through Feb. 20. As a work in progress at Dance Place last February, the piece was critiqued in The Washington Post as "a hard-hitting examination of Tupac Shakur's legacy."
Directed by Kenneth Daugherty, "The Seventh Son" features six professional and amateur actors who perform a play within a play. That means cast members portray actors playing teenagers, academics and nightclubbers, among other prototypes, who have differing views of Shakur.
Daugherty, a former chairman of the Drama Department at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, said he likes the show's structure because it made him reevaluate Shakur's influence without the play resembling a lecture.
The rapper's music is spliced throughout the production, including lines from Alexander's favorite Shakur song, "Changes":
"I see no changes, wake up in the morning and I ask myself/ Is life worth living, or should I blast myself/ I'm tired of being poor, and even worse I'm black/ My stomach hurts, so I'm looking for a purse to snatch."
Consider Shakur, Alexander said, as a human crucible of determination, aggression and arrogance representing "the duality we all have." The playwright referred specifically to his and Shakur's struggle for dignity as black men in America: "I need to let people know what I will do, what I need, what I won't tolerate."
The comparison stops there. When Alexander met Shakur in 1992, during a one-time job as the singer's chauffeur in Charleston, S.C., he was shaken by the experience. In the car was Alexander's teenage brother, who asked the rapper how to be successful. A surprised Alexander heard Shakur recommend a college education.
But once at a Charleston nightclub, Alexander said, the rapper yanked a willing woman off the dance floor and took her behind closed doors as two "roadies" stood watch.
"Seventh Son" is not the first time Alexander has examined what he calls Shakur's "schizophrenia." After starting what is now BlackWords Inc., a five-year-old publishing house specializing in first-time black authors, he produced an anthology of 26 writers opining about the rapper. "Tough Love: The Life and Death of Tupac Shakur" featured an afterword from Shakur's stepfather and sold more than 7,500 copies.
The firm's ninth book, a mystery called "One Dead Preacher," is due out next month. The company's offices are in Alexandria and Baltimore, where Alexander works three days a week training teachers for Head Start.
Edward Curtis Kwame Alexander II was born in New York City and grew up in Chesapeake, Va. He wrote poetry as a teenager but found his voice as a columnist at the Virginia Tech student newspaper.
"I wanted to be the William Raspberry of Virginia Tech," he said.
His literary influences at school included Nikki Giovanni, a faculty member known for her black militant poems in the 1960s and 1970s.
Since then, Alexander has organized a writers summit and continues two monthly events at Takoma Station Tavern in Washington: the poetry slam Slammin' and JazzStudio, which highlights a jazz artist.
He is trying to complete a new play based on Langston Hughes's Jesse B. Semple stories.
"Semple is just like the name, he's simple. But at the same time, he's very wise," Alexander said. "He's an every-black-man who has something to say about everything. It deals with my focus of writing dramas that explore the ideas and ideals of black men."
"Seventh Son" plays until Feb. 20 at Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre, 1611 N. Kent St., Rosslyn. For information, call 703-912-1755 or visit the Web site www.blackwords.com.