Canterbury

Chaucer with a Hip Hop Beat

Canterbury

The Canterbury Tales Remixed, written and performed by Baba Brinkman, a Canadian actor and rap artist, features music and turn-tablism by Mr. Simmonds, a native to the UK’s underground hip hop scene. According to the show’s press release: “Canterbury Tales Remixed links today’s hip-hop lyrics with classic tales.”

Canterbury Tales Remixed is less of a play or musical and more of a cabaret show. Brinkman’s versions of Chaucer’s pieces are interspersed with spoken introductions and/or explanations. He uses interpolations that replace Chaucer’s Middle English with urban jargon, blended with styles borrowed from hip hop heavyweights like Biggie Smalls, Jay-Z, Nas, DMX, Eminem, and Big Pun. As Baba informs the audience, “Middle English was the language of the common folk.” Hip hop, much like its musical predecessors, blues and jazz, was the music of the common folk, expressing the sentiments and frustrations of the downtrodden, those financially and socially oppressed. The parallels between MCs and griots, storytellers in western Africa, abound and through the writer’s words spoken by the performer, are easy ones to accept. “Troubadours have loops. MCs have DJs.”

YouTube Preview ImageThe show begins with Mr. Simmonds standing on the downstage left corner of the stage mixing and cutting what seem to be original beats produced by the turn-tablist himself. In lieu of constructed backdrops or set pieces, there is an upstage projection screen that stretches the width of the stage, featuring different scenes with either animated or illustrated characters all voiced by Brinkman. The video/media elements that appeared on the large screen also served to accentuate the punch lines amidst his often rapid fire cadence allowing for a differentiated performance experience; anyone unable to keep up with the words, can follow via the images on the screen.

When Brinkman first took the stage, he did his best to “look hip hop,” entering clad in jeans, Timberland work boots and a hooded sweatshirt, a hoodie laced up along the neckline in the front, like a peasant shirt most often seen on pirates or bards of old. Before even uttering a word, his attire provided a visual amalgam of what the piece was destined to be. While watching, there were several places where I found myself unsure if the presentation and attire was an homage or a satire. Though he was in character, I felt like I’d seen the performance offered by Baba Brinkman before and couldn’t shake the images of Jamie Kennedy in Malibu’s Most Wanted, Michael Rappaport in Zebrahead, or Danny Hoch in Whiteboyz from my mind. There were several places in which his hip hop posturing felt cartoonish and I wasn’t sure if it was a deliberate choice or an accidental overstep that could be corrected if writer and performer were two separate individuals.

At one point, Baba referenced the two camps of people sure to attend a show of this nature. He labeled these two groups the purists and the tourists. In his mind, the purists are those who feel that Chaucer’s work should remain untainted and that those interested in learning or reading it should do so in its pure, original form. The tourists on the other hand are just here to be entertained, by any means necessary. Being an avid devotee of hip hop, I was curious as to how he would try to please the hip hop purists and tourists. Quoth the artist:

I would appease the hip-hop purists the same way I appease the literary purists: with ridicule. Hip hop has always been an underdog’s game, so if purists want to make an underdog of me that can only work in my favour. It has to be about skill, both in terms of the artist’s mastery of rhyme and rhythm techniques and in terms of the impact they are able to have on a live audience. The real question is: if someone wants to exclude me from hip-hop on the basis of my background rather than my abilities, then what competitions, art forms, or opportunities are they willing to be excluded from on a similar basis? If the answer is “none,” then “purist” is a synonym for “hypocrite.”

Although I had some issues while watching the play, both the purist and the tourist in me enjoyed the performance immensely. The Canterbury Tales Remixed is a good show, well written, well directed, well lit and well scored. In several places, I found myself enjoying his spoken interludes, what were truly his words in origin and craft, more than his rhymes. Too many times Brinkman’s delivery of his rhymes felt forced and novice. It was easy to hear those who’d influenced his performance much like imitation or bad karaoke. Perhaps if he wasn’t billed as a rapper and actor, the bar wouldn’t have been set as high. All writers are not meant to be performers, but this doesn’t make what they’ve written less valuable. My measuring stick for lyricism and lyrical prowess is certainly skewed and a tourist of the musical genre would most likely not take issue with the same things I did and simply be entertained.

All in all though, the piece works. I’ve already told several of my friends, those that were either suckled at the teat of theater or that of hip hop or literature, to check it out. Brinkman and Simmonds manage to blend effectively, effortlessly, and expertly two challenging styles that, under a cursory view, couldn’t be more different and make them one. The performers do an excellent job of making both the musical genre and literary work accessible and entertaining to the audience, whether purists or tourists of either camp.

SoHo Playhouse
15 Vandam Street
212-691-1555
Through January 29, 2012

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