Most works of theatre are probably, in some form or another, about the end of the world. Whether that refers to the private world of a play’s characters or the greater society they inhabit, a good story spills from the possibility that life as we know it may shutter or collapse. For years the villagers lived peacefully on the banks of a river; then, one day, God sent a storm and the river overflowed, flooding our happy little town. Now that’s drama.
In the abstract, Baba Brinkman’s Rap Guide To Climate Chaos, now playing at the SoHo Playhouse, deals with an apocalypse that is not abstract at all. Climate change is already a very real problem for millions of people, on island nations slowly succumbing to sea level rise and coastal cities devastated by increasingly violent hurricanes. Brinkman has an intimate, almost encyclopaedic understanding of the issue – he boasts that his rap is “peer-reviewed” having performed many of Climate Chaos’s songs at the COP21 climate conference in Paris this past December. He also grew up in a climate-conscious family. His father founded a company that plants trees, while his mother is an environmental advocate and a member of the Canadian Parliament. He is an unlikely expert but an expert nonetheless, translating the complexities of geoscience, climatology, and the world economy into entertaining beats and accessible verse. And yet the question hovers over it all – what’s his stake in this?
Climate Chaos, like Brinkman’s previous Rap Guides to subjects including evolution and religion, plays out as a wide-ranging discourse in a little under ninety minutes of rap. It’s largely expositional, with more than half of the show explaining that climate change is both real and bad. There’s more than a touch of self-consciousness to his status as a white rapper—the opening number, “Options,” starts “Straight outta Canada, not straight outta Compton / I started rapping but not for lack of options,” and goes on to explain how he gravitated toward academic-oriented hip-hop when gangster rap didn’t pan out: “Aesop the Living Legend listened to my music / And said ‘That’s the kind of rap white people should be doin.’” This sort of insistence – perhaps self-insistence – that Brinkman is, in fact, a rapper becomes a grating motif. His lyrics frequently mention how “dope” his lyrics are, or that he has been invited to perform in laureled fora – performances often projected on the wall behind him, alongside statistics, graphs, and images of polar bears. At times it seems the true subject of Climate Chaos is not climate change but Brinkman himself, yet there is little more depth to his own story than that he is a rapper who wrote a play-in-rap about climate change. There are mini-narratives in individual songs – the history of climate science, the lurid tale of Exxon internally preparing for sea level rise even as it publicly denied climate change – but no greater narrative beyond that of a man rapping in front of an audience. The result is a disorienting self-reflexivity, a mirror aimed at another mirror: a show about the guy who wrote the show, performing the show he wrote.
This is confusing, yes, but what it comes down to is a lack of stakes. Climate change is tense, threatening, dramatic; an explanation of climate change is not. I suspect it could be, were the explanation directed at a roomful of deniers. But I suspect also that there is considerable overlap between the set of people who see Off-Broadway shows and the set of people who need no convincing that climate change is a pressing threat. This was evident in a segment in which Brinkman asked the audience what he had missed – a setup, it turned out, for a freestyle – and expressed surprise that so many were onboard with the overwhelming scientific consensus. Climate Chaos’s more interesting question, then, is not the “what?” but the “what now?” – what can we educated New York theatergoers do about climate change? Brinkman addresses the issue, and comes close to creating some emotional stakes when he mentions his 2 year-old daughter, with the unsatisfying and clichéd truth: individuals can do very little, unless they unite in a collectivized social movement. Well, sure. So how do we do that?
Rap Guide to Climate Change has been extended, May 6-June 11. Click here for tickets.