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vancouverplays review


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— Production photo

by Baba Brinkman
The Cultch
Oct. 29-Nov. 10
From $18 or 604-251-1363

"The weak and the strong/ Darwin got it goin' on/ Creationism is dead wrong."

So hips and hops my homeboy Baba Brinkman in his Rap Guide to Evolution. But wait, does anybody say "homeboy" anymore? One clear message this show conveys: all things in nature are constantly evolving, including language, and for a reason, though that reason won't necessarily be evident in our short lifetime.

Part lecture, part hip hop concert, The Rap Guide cleverly marshals a range of evidence in support of Darwin's theory of evolution. A competent and likable if unlikely rapper, Brinkman has scripted a compelling series of musical arguments. Along with the scratchy rhythms of primo turntablist DJ Jamie Simmonds and rockin' graphics from projection designer Wendell K. Harrington, he has created audience-friendly, intellectually challenging infotainment of the highest order.

This is a homecoming of sorts for Baba, a New Westminster boy who initially made his mark here a decade ago performing his Rap Canterbury Tales at the Fringe Festival. Arguing that Chaucer was himself a proto-rap artist, Baba adapted some of those medieval tales to contemporary music and rhyme. Combining intellectualism (he has a Master's in English from U Vic) with his favourite contemporary musical idiom became Baba's signature style.

While touring his rap Chaucer in the UK, Baba got the attention of genomics professor Mark Pallen, who commissioned him to create a rap tribute to evolution for Charles Darwin's 200th birthday in 2009. The show won a playwriting award at the Edinburgh Festival and played for five months off-Broadway, where it received a Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstanding Solo Performance. Brinkman is very likely the first white Canadian rapper (okay, the first rapper period) to perform alongside Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking.

The show argues that Darwin's ideas are irrefutable and account for the most extraordinary phenomena. Like how did we get from amoeba to rappers? Baba uses rap itself as a primary illustration of Darwinian principles. Confused about Darwinian terms such as genetic variation and natural selection? Think about the variation among rap styles and stylists, and how fans will choose one of them as their favourite, and how that rapper's success will influence the evolution of the genre.

He does a great rap on ancestry using Dead Prez's song “I Am a African.” Baba's version: "I am a African/ A geneticist taught me what's happenin'." He argues that while Dead Prez wrote and performed the rap as an assertion of Afrocentric black nationalism, the title actually reminds us that all humankind originally evolved out of Africa. In that sense every one of is African, so we get to sing along and fist-pump with him, being careful to pronounce the title line properly: “a African.”

This is not the last time in the show that Baba's use of African-American idioms, pronunciation and style, and his encouragement of the audience to do the same, made me squirm. He goes out of his way to point out that he's not black, that he didn't grow up in the ghetto, and that when he performs gangsta rap he's obviously assuming a persona. Still, it feels a little too close to blackface minstrelsy for comfort.

But give Baba credit for straight-shooting. When he takes on the creationists (including some of his own fundamentalist family members), he gives no quarter. Harrington's projections are particularly sharp here. One has Jesus holding a baby dinosaur while wise, bearded Darwin looks skeptically over his shoulder. (The second-best cartoon, in a different context, shows a girl biting off Justin Bieber's head.)

Some of Baba's most compelling arguments take the form of a lecture on evolutionary psychology, with graphs showing a correlation between murder rates, income gaps and life expectancy. It's all about competition, status, calculated risk taking, reproduction and survival. Even teen pregnancy has its Darwinian logic: "Pregnant before marriage, it's such a tragedy/ Apparently it's also a reproductive strategy."

He explains how gangsta rap, too, makes Darwinian sense, turning Mobb Deep's rap song “Survival of the Fittest” into an evolutionary psychology lesson about body language and aggressive deterrent displays. The Darwinian explanation for why male peacocks have such ridiculously gaudy tails leads him into a discussion of rappers' bling and the conspicuous display of useless props to signal the possession of other significant resources.

Baba's Darwinian agenda is consistently progressive. He explains the evolutionary/ genetic origins and logic of homosexuality. He rejects the validity of social Darwinism, arguing that evolution is based as much on cooperation as on competition: "Worse comes to worst/ My people come first/ But my tribe lives in every country on earth." The principle that female mate choice is a primary driver of male violence leads to his sing-along advice song, “Don't Sleep with Mean People.” (Projection: The Simpsons' Mr. Burns with an X across his face.)

So go to The Cultch and see what's goin' down/ Evolve yourself on the east side of town.

Jerry Wasserman


Baba Brinkman objected to a line in Jerry's review. Jerry responded, and Baba came back again. Read this interesting exchange on our Letters page.














Jerry Wasserman