Baba Brinkman Schools Audiences on Chaucer in ‘The Canterbury Tales Remixed’

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By Doug Strassler

There are few people who fondly recall Middle English literary works. For most, classic texts like Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales were little more than a hurdle to overcome on the way to graduation. Some, it’s safe to say, didn’t even read the Tales themselves, seeking out either CliffsNotes or Wikipedia as a substitute. Yes, there may be some literature scholars out there with a legitimate love for the Pardoner or the Squire, but they are firmly in the minority.

But what if there was a way to make The Canterbury Tales more accessible to the masses? Artist Baba Brinkman may be providing just the tonic at SoHo Playhouse.

The hip-hop artist both wrote and performs in The Canterbury Tales Remixed, a unique theatrical experience that utilizes hip-hop music to bring the Tales to life. To Brinkman, the link between the two art forms is perfectly clear. “They are both oral, rhymed narrative forms that tell stories for a live listening audience,” he said. And if that explanation still sounds like the dry rhetoric of a university professor, Brinkman added that both “are infused with sex and violence, greed, lust, infidelity and a gritty reality that gives the voices behind them urgency.”

Brinkman, who has a master’s degree in Medieval and Renaissance English literature, says it’s those same juicy elements that Chaucer laced throughout his masterwork that drew him to rap and hip-hop. But he also praises the genre’s wit and creativity. To date, he has written five hip-hop theatrical works, including The Rap Guide to Evolution, which claimed the Scotsman Fringe First Award at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe Festival before enjoying a successful run this past summer at SoHo Playhouse.

“It’s all part of one big vision, which is to use hip-hop and theater as a vessel for communicating great ideas and great stories and at the same time show people that rap has very deep roots in human history,” Brinkman said.

The basic kernel of Remixed, directed by Darren Lee Cole, is that the hedonistic characters central to The Canterbury Tales share the same ambitions as today’s chest-thumping hip-hop stars. Brinkman (who cites the Wife of Bath as his favorite of Chaucer’s creations) enacts these characters’ stories to the backdrop of a soundtrack mixed by DJ Simmonds. The music draws out the inherent emotional currents that run through each tale, helping draw parallels between the characters and the audience members. A studio album of Remixed is forthcoming.

“Mr. Simmonds brings an emotional tone appropriate to each tale, allowing the music and voice to interact much like the music that would have accompanied medieval storytelling,” Brinkman said.

For the director’s part, teaming with Brinkman was a no-brainer. “When Baba was here with The Rap Guide to Evolution, I was blown away by the intelligence, talent and entertainment value he and Mr. Simmonds brought to the stage,” Cole recalled, applauding Brinkman’s musicianship. “I knew he had this hip-hop version of The Canterbury Tales and we immediately discussed reinventing it for the SoHo Playhouse. The Tales and Baba’s style meld perfectly together—his use of rhythm and cadence hold audiences’ attentions, young and old.”

“From this show, people can expect shivers, laughs and for their minds to be stimulated,” Brinkman said. Universities, beware: If Remixed takes off, it could give birth to a flurry of Middle English scholars.

For more information and a schedule, visit www.sohoplayhouse.com.

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