Darian Dauchan Spreads "Dopeness" in The Brobot Johnson Experience
The Afrofuturist hip-hop solo show is launching nightly at the Bushwick Starr.
The plot of The Brobot Johnson Experience sounds like pure sci-fi kitsch: a hip-hop android, or "brobot," travels back in time from the planet Nubia in 2118 to Earth in 2018 to spread his tribe's philosophy of "dopeness" (and for other, more pressing reasons he reveals later). And upon entering the Bushwick Starr, where Darian Dauchan's solo show is making its exuberant world premiere, that sense of goofy genre pastiche is reinforced by Raul Abrego's set: a "boombox spaceship" with LPs for doorknobs that look like leftover parts from a low-budget 1970s Star Wars rip-off, all given a blue-tinted sheen under Sarah Johnston's lighting design.
But while it'd be overselling The Brobot Johnson Experience to suggest that the cheesy set-up gradually broadens into something profound, Dauchan does have more on his mind than simply offering a hip-hop-inflected riff on sci-fi tropes. What the playwright-performer-composer offers, in the course of his 14 rap numbers, is a full, wide-ranging, inclusive vision of an ideal world.
It's a vision that also spans multiple forms of media. The show is described as an "Afrofuturism transmedia piece," and indeed, The Brobot Johnson Experience is being presented in conjunction with a 13-part web series, The New Adventures of Brobot Johnson, and a concept album, Brobot Johnson: Bionic Boom Bap. Not that one absolutely needs to consume both before seeing the show, which is essentially a live concert of all the rap numbers featured in the series and album, with some narrative elements worked in. Still, the web series does offer a tantalizing curtain-raiser for the show, with the episodes' mix of silent-movie and music-video styles in chronicling the Frankenstein-like beginnings of the brobot race mirroring Dauchan's gleeful filtering of hip-hop references, sci-fi conventions, and pop-culture detritus into his stage show.
Simply as a showcase for one performer's theatrical and musical prowess in a live setting, The Brobot Johnson Experience is impressive, even stupefying at times. In contrast to the album versions of the songs he performs in the show, Dauchan has no backing band at his disposal — it's only him, in full metallic robot regalia (courtesy of costume designer Asa Benally), and a DJ mixer onstage, with the machine creating the beats and taped loops upon which he masterfully lays down his rhymes. Most notably, Dauchan projects a touching aura of genuine innocence, betraying not a whit of winking irony as Flobot Owens, the brobot intent on spreading his philosophy to a generation that long predates his own.
That quality goes a long way toward selling what could, to some viewers' eyes, be seen as an overly simplistic view of the world he proffers. As The Brobot Johnson Experience is structured, each number is tied to a different philosophical proverb ("ingenuity," "wisdom," "hygiene," etc.) as represented by an African adinkra symbol. Dauchan's explication of these proverbial tenets as Flobot Owens isn't especially complex; together, they add up to little more than a "live well and treat each other right" homily. But as Dauchan inhabits the character and performs the music, one can't help but get swept up in his child-like fervor, especially when he checks in on his home planet and wonders if his efforts aren't ultimately in vain.
In this context, even the extensive amount of audience participation Dauchan encourages in The Brobot Johnson Experience — including a climactic dance party in which everyone is encouraged to join him onstage — feels of a piece with his unifying vision. Here, in this playful blast of futuristic kitsch, is a glimpse of a societal utopia that, especially in our current fraught political moment, seems heartbreakingly far beyond our grasp. It may all be corny, but Dauchan makes us fully believe it, at least for 80 minutes.