Odell Ruffin is not the first playwright to tell the story of Tupac Shakur on stage. Ruffin's play A Tupac Tale, set to bow in L.A. for the first time to commemorate what would be Shakur's 42nd birthday, is one of at least three stage works about the late rapper. It is, however, the only work to follow Shakur through one of the darkest periods of his life: his trial for rape in 1993.
Ruffin first appeared as Shakur in an early version of Tale, then a one-man show, at Howard University in 2009. Since then, she show has evolved several times over, most recently for the play's West Coast bow later this week (starring Calvin C. Winbush in the title role).
Ruffin spoke with L.A. Weekly about the newest version of the show and why Shakur remains an iconic figure years after his death.
How does making Shakur's rape trial the focus affect the play?
It's the part that people don't necessarily pay attention to, that they often overlook. … It gives people a chance to look a little bit deeper into the case. … We try not to make it this model character, but a man, going through what everyone else would be going through during a trial, having that possibility of going to prison.
Shakur has remained in the public's consciousness years after his death. Why do you think that is?
He spoke from a place of trying to move us as a people in a whole other direction, in a positive direction, in a more unified direction. But there's a rough exterior that you have to get through to that. People relate more to his purposes and his causes than his rap.
The run here in L.A. will be a one-day only experience — why so short? Would you be interested in returning with it later?
We've had a tradition of doing it on his birthday. I definitely do, but under the right circumstances, basically. My vision is having a few weeks of a run. There's no definite date, but that's my vision.
You played Shakur in the first version of the show, but as the show has grown, other actors have taken on the role. How does that affect your perception of the show?
It's actually a beautiful thing to see. … I haven't had an opportunity to really see it, and now I'm seeing it for a lot more potential than before. To be able to see how other people are receiving it, how that message gets across for the first time, that process is very good to me, because I'm excited for the characters who are going to be brought to the West Coast for the first time.
There are other takes on Tupac in theater — what do you think separates yours?
Where it starts. [Other productions] take place in a certain time period … after he leaves prison. A lot of productions take place prior to that point and focus on the transition.
Do you plan on modifying the work further, or are you happy with this version?
This version is definitely something that I'm happy with. When you're in a situation where you're in a production and it's real life, they're characters and situations that are real, for me, I try to keep them as real as possible.