Written and performed by Baba Brinkman; Directed by Darren Lee Cole
Off Broadway, Solo Show
Extended through 12.13.14
Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street
by Jerron Herman on 10.18.14
Baba Brinkman in Rap Guide to Religion.
BOTTOM LINE: Drama Desk nominee and Canadian artist Baba Brinkman raps and rips into the intricacies of religion.
Straight from a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Rap Guide to Religion is being resurrected at the Soho Playhouse. Already known for his other Rap Guide to Evolution, Canadian rapper and academic Baba Brinkman truncates thousands of years of religious theory and origin into a two-hour one man show. What welcomes you into the downtown theater is none other than the seminal devotional "Church in the Wild" by "Hova" (Jay-Z) and "Yeezus" (Kanye West) from their duet album Watch the Throne. As a theatrical piece Rap Guide is very different from its solo show and rap concert origins, making it a new genre entirely—part entertaining, but part pedantic.
Brinkman is extremely knowledgeable about science and its benefit to humanity, but sees it as the only saving grace for the countless coping mechanisms we call religions. In attempts to offset the audience's presumed attachment to outdated superstitions, the production weaves in and out of lecture notes and rap soliloquies about subjects like Theory of the Mind, Dualism, and the National Center for Science Education. Brinkman's judgment of religion is firm and a bit hostile, making it difficult to separate an agenda from the art.
Brinkman is a rapper, but also a degree-holding academic. His inclusion of some of the theories above are smartly embodied in pithy lyrics. His tracks range from musings on ancestry to secular domination, all with that 8-Mile urgency. These educative raps are masterfully written and dazzle with complex rhyme, often citing many notable authors and theoreticians, but the rhymes all sit in a warning: the audience still lacks important scientific knowledge. That Brinkman's rapper ego helps paint him as a self-styled "expert" only adds to this feeling of condescension—as if anyone in the audience who "believes" is therefore naive and needs to be educated.
What stands out over the research is a totally Westernized viewpoint. Throughout the piece Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism are simply anecdotal; it is Christianity (or rather, Brinkman's displeasure with it) that reigns. By the end of the piece Sweden is projected as a far superior nation to the United States, and we can forget about any nation that has not corrected itself through Carl Sagan's laws of science.
In good persuasive writing fashion, Brinkman adds in a counter-argument to his idea by stating that religion doesn't harbor all ills; in even better persuasive writing fashion, his final blackout follows soon after. The ending of Rap Guide to Religion feels quite different from a more typical solo show, where the character identifies some growth or a widening of perspective because they've told us their story. In contrast, Brinkman refrains from giving us this shift; in a way I feel duped because Brinkman doesn't discover anything aside from what he already knows.
Rap Guide to Religion reminds me of those pieces that attempt to "convert" audiences by curtain, often foregoing authenticity for agenda: the film An Inconvenient Truth comes to mind. Although the theories and origins of religion are subject to much scrutiny, the piece feels artistically flat, more lecture than theatre. This is not an easy piece for a number of reasons. The content is very academic, but it is somewhat streamlined to include a white rapper's lyrical skillz. The length is questionable, but then again, we might be angry had Brinkman devoted less time to such complex subject matter. Go—if you're in the mood to think for yourself.
(Rap Guide to Religion plays at Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, through December 13, 2104. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 9:30PM and Sundays at 7:30PM. Tickets are $45 and are available at sohoplayhouse.com.)