This undated theater image released by The O + M Co. shows Baba Brinkman during a performance of “Ingenious Nature,” in New York. (AP Photo/The O + M Co., Carol Rosegg)
NEW YORK (AP) — Here’s some advice you wouldn’t expect before a theater outing: Don’t turn off your cell phone at Baba Brinkman’s new off-Broadway show “Ingenious Nature,” his latest hyper-intellectual hip-hop stage piece.
You’ll need it to text responses to occasional audience polls before and during the performance. And, more importantly, the gleam from the device will help you find your seat in the near-pitch blackness of the SoHo Playhouse, where the show opened Wednesday.
Even before the play begins, the space is as dark as the darkest nightclub. The only light in the theater radiates from the stage, where Brinkman sits at a table off to the left, his face aglow and vaguely sinister as he pecks away on a laptop computer surrounded by stacks of books.
Across the stage, his DJ works a pair of turntables, scratching over savory beats, his perfectly flat-brimmed cap bobbing in rhythm.
Brinkman’s computer screen is projected on the wall behind the men, giving the performer a way to communicate nonverbally with the still-arriving audience, as he trolls women’s profiles on a dating website.
The Canadian-born rap artist and literary scholar dedicates part of the display to a series of poll questions about online dating and other subjects. As the audience sends anonymous text messages to register their responses, charts showing the poll results are instantly updated.
This digital interaction is just a small part of “Ingenious Nature,” which essentially consists of heady, original rap songs framed by poetic monologues. But it’s one of a number of refreshingly daring elements that make the show a unique, if slightly unpolished, theatrical experience.
After the flirtatious preamble, Baba embarks on lyrical excursions about the New York dating scene and various other social phenomena. Cell phones can be tucked away until late in the 90-minute production, when the rapid-fire poll questions return during a freestyle rap, as the MC riffs with impressive ease, improvising a commentary on audience opinions.
The back-wall projections are used throughout the show to illustrate musical numbers, often in clever and aesthetically attractive ways, and at times more crudely. This uneveness of the visual aspect detracts from the overall production, but it’s not something that can’t be remedied by further development and some tweaking.
Brinkman’s love of classic hip-hop comes through in his undeniably fluid technique and slick use of samples by A Tribe Called Quest and Big Pun, among others.
What sets him apart from other rappers is the acutely academic nature of his rhymes. The self-described “science geek” draws his own line between cool and nerdy and somehow never fails to straddle it with gusto.
A scholar of medieval and Renaissance English, Brinkman is making a return engagement (through Jan. 6) at the Playhouse, where he has performed some of his other works, including an unlikely but well-received rap tribute to the 14-century poet Geoffrey Chaucer entitled “The Canterbury Tales Remixed.”
Another of his earlier productions, “The Rap Guide to Evolution,” took a more scientific slant with a lyrical breakdown of Charles Darwin’s theory and its epic conflict with creationism.
“Ingenious Nature” revisits some evolutionary themes, most explicitly in a number called “The Creationist,” in which Baba goes on a first (and last) date with a fervently religious medical student.
Despite that and other digressions into Darwinism — the show’s title is a word play on the subjects of genes and natural selection — Brinkman’s latest piece is something of a departure from the more strictly literary or scientific analyses he’s rapped in the past.
Instead, he shifts much of his focus away from books and toward himself, spinning a slowly emerging, autobiographical narrative beginning with his early years as a “young, white, Canadian wannabe G” (or gangster) from “the safest of Canadian streets,” to his struggle as an adult to resolve his career with dating and relationships.
He also recounts how he met his talented DJ and eventual roommate, Jaime Simmonds, who provides a steady flow of style and groove on the turntables.
When Simmonds takes five and the music stops, Brinkman’s rhythm persists in casually spoken but eloquent lines that only hint at lyrical cadence.
This appealing style of conversational speech with subtle tinges of rap and poetry is one of the things that makes “Ingenious Nature” more than just a rap performance, though it doesn’t quite add up to a human drama.
Brinkman has forged a worthy theatrical method in his music, but this autobiographical piece doesn’t reveal very much about its subject, aside from the fact that he has a sharp intellect and uncommon way with rhymes.
Maybe that’s enough.