How Masta Ace Transformed from MC to Playwright with ‘The Falling Season’

Since before the turn of the century, Brooklyn-bred rapper Masta Ace has put out numerous studio albums, most of which see him employ an incredibly detail-oriented, storytelling-based approach. But now, with an upcoming play titled The Falling Season, roughly influenced by his beloved LPs like Disposable Arts (2001), A Long Hot Summer (2004), and The Falling Season (2016), Ace is preparing to take his raps to the theatre.

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This past June, The Falling Season had a reading done at Theatre Row in New York, which is “an Off-Broadway multi-theater complex in the heart of the Theater District that serves as an affordable home for performing artist organizations, and a lively, accessible venue for diverse audiences,” according to their website. His debut as a playwright, The Falling Season is similar to his aforementioned albums in that it is inspired by his humble beginnings in New York, and that it includes raps also written by him.

Following a young man named Avis in the late 1980s, The Falling Season is a fictional story that chronicles the summertime for “a kid from a tough neighborhood in Brooklyn, who was just trying to go out into the world and live a dream and get an education and make his mom happy,” Ace tells American Songwriter. Throughout this journey, though, Avis encounters “influences from the neighborhood that are putting his hopes and dreams in jeopardy,” an aspect of the story that comes from Ace’s own upbringing.

“The musical toggles between four main settings that symbolize different components in Avis’ life: a classroom, a bodega, a stoop, and a living room,” a press release for The Falling Season reads.

At the June reading, many notable attendees marveled at Ace’s creation, whether it was former Def Jam CEO Paul Rosenberg, Newark, New Jersey councilman Dupré Kelly (former rapper), MC and actress Rah Digga, or others. In fact, people like these getting a glimpse of The Falling Season, including potential investors, was perfect in helping Ace and his team achieve their goals for the play, which involves debuting it locally in New York or New Jersey and then touring it overseas at West End in London.

“They were blown away, they ran up to me right afterwards like, ‘We got to bring this to Newark. How can we bring it to Newark Symphony Hall?'” Ace says the Newark representatives told him at the reading.

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But, what Ace has strongly emphasized is that The Falling Season was not just a serendipitous pivot for him, but an inkling he has had for nearly a decade. In the mid-2010s, he had worked on a few half-baked ideas for TV and movie screenplays in his free time. But, he didn’t find a way to vocalize his desire for screenwriting until he noticed that his friend Power Malu, who often toured with him, had been performing a one-man show for a production collective named Rhymes Over Beats.

Seeing Malu rehearse for his performances from afar, Ace finally discussed his secret passion with his pal, who eventually took him to an ROB party in 2016 to hear from the founding artistic director Patrick Blake. This is where he heard Blake tell the crowd that ROB was “looking for artists that are interested in writing for theatre.”

“If you’ve got ideas, we’re trying to bring hip-hop stories to the stage,” Ace recalls Blake told the attendees.

Immediately upon hearing this, Ace’s synapses began firing off, as his “mind process started to take what I was working on, as a screenplay, and adapting it more to the stage.” So, right around the same time he dropped The Falling Season album in May 2016, Ace began writing The Falling Season play.

But, even after talking to Blake and getting approval for the play, as well as being assigned a dramaturge named Cate Cammarata who he met with weekly to help him with his script, Ace still ran into a bit of trouble getting his lyrical writing techniques translated into the theatre.

“The main challenge for me was when it came to the music because as an artist, I’m used to having no guardrails. If I write a song, I can kind of go wherever I want with the lyrics. I can touch on this, touch on that, bring in different thoughts and ideas,” he says. “You don’t have to always be on topic, you can touch on other things within that song when you’re writing as an emcee or as an artist. But in theater, every word and every line of every song has to be about the story and has to push the narrative and the story forward.

“That became the challenge for me because the initial first few songs I wrote, it was, ‘Okay, this is what the song is about. We just touch on everything within that world and what that topic is. It’s saying stuff that had maybe nothing to do with the story, but are more topical.’ And Cate was the one who had to reel me in a little bit and say, ‘Okay, these lines are really poetic with cool-sounding words, but they don’t help tell the story.’ Every part of the song has to help tell the story. So that was an adjustment for me.”

Eventually, though, after multiple years of meetings and readings over Zoom due to COVID guidelines, ROB and Blake were finally convinced that The Falling Season was ready to be produced.

“Okay, this thing is ready for the stage,” Blake told Ace after a reading in early 2022. “We’re ready to bring it to an audience of investors so they can see the show.”

So, Ace and ROB then began casting all the parts in the play. Skeptical about how actors would be able to rap lyrics he wrote, though, Ace said he looked to globally renowned musical Hamilton for reassurance. Though he didn’t necessarily take inspiration from the Lin-Manuel Miranda production, he says it gave him a good grasp of what theatre actors are capable of.

“Hamilton didn’t feel like hip-hop to me, it felt like a Broadway musical,” he says. “They just so happened to be rapping, but it wasn’t a hip-hop story… But, those were complex raps and cadences… If an actor can learn Shakespeare, they can learn to spit those super complicated lyrics.”

In fact, while putting The Falling Season together, Ace didn’t look to any other productions or playwrights for influence. Instead, during the few times he did go to the theatre, he instead absorbed the behind-the-scenes practices of the casts and crews.

“When I’m working on an album, what I don’t do is go out and start listening to a bunch of albums,” he says. “I don’t want anything leaking into my brain and changing my chemistry of what I’m thinking about the direction I’m going. … I wanted to come with a fresh perspective. If nothing else, it was gonna be unique.

“Those [plays] were helpful from the standpoint of understanding what’s possible and what’s not possible, and how to execute certain things and how to visualize certain things. … When I go to a hip-hop show, that’s the same thing I do. I’m not enjoying the show. I’m looking at all the technical stuff. What’s the DJ doing? Are there dancers? What’s the hype man doing? What’s this person doing?”

Overall, with help from ROB’s Blake, the play’s director Todd Underwood, his liaison Donna Hart, and his dramaturge Cate Cammarata, Ace feels like The Falling Season is ready to be performed. Hoping to take the show out to Europe where his fan support is the most robust, Ace insists that the musical is done cooking, but needs some assistance from investors so it can be served to audiences.

“The goal is to get this thing to London,” he says. “We want to open at the West End, or off West End. It’s the right place for me to open this thing because my fan base in Europe is just so very strong. And it’s not based on TV. It’s not based on radio play. It’s just based on the love of me as an artist and the music that I’ve done in my career. So I know that people will genuinely come out.”

Photo by Mara Tröeger / Courtesy The Bloom Effect PR

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