If Bill Nye the Science Guy fell into a vat of hip-hop flavored radioactive waste, he would probably end up as Baba Brinkman.
The rapper’s latest science-themed play, “Ingenious Nature” – a follow-up to 2011’s “The Rap Guide to Evolution” – centers on a man’s quest to find a mate using the online dating website OkCupid. By rapping his way through the saga, the Canadian playwright explains the science behind human mating behavior, in all its quirkiness, in an accessible and entertaining way.
You have a masters in medieval and renaissance English literature. How did you end up rapping about science?
I was sort of recruited to science communication. I was doing “The Canterbury Tales” as a hip-hop interpretation and I toured that in England for four years. And then I happened to do a show at the University of Birmingham and a geneticist there saw it. He was working on a book called “The Rough Guide To Evolution,” so he reached out to me and said, “if you can rap ‘The Canterbury Tales,’ I bet you could rap ‘The Origin Of Species.’”
He put it to me as a challenge and as a commission request. So when he hit me with that, I had six months to brush up on my biology and write a 45-minute rap show about evolutionary biology, which became “The Rap Guide to Evolution.” I thought it was such a cool project that I just dove right into it.
Why did you decide to use the online dating website OkCupid as the driver for your show?
Well, I joined the site and I was using it to find dates for a while. And we made the “Ingenious Nature” album in 2010, so the show is written around the musical instrumentals from the album. OkCupid is how I turned the album into a play. I used the OkCupid experience and the search for a mate as the storyline that would allow me to segue into all of this really intriguing science stuff. Because it can’t feel like a TED talk – it has to feel like a story with a protagonist. And if you’re interested in sex differences, psychology and mating behavior as a function of parental investment theory, OkCupid will confirm every stereotype you can imagine.
What do you think of your being show being labeled “controversial” in some reviews?
Have you read the Backstage.com review? It said the show is “too scientific” and comes across as bitter. For some people, discussing human behavior in a scientific context is bitter, inherently, no matter what your tone is. For them inspirational is “we’re all free agents that are unique individual snowflakes that can manifest our destinies,” and bitter is “we have an evolutionary legacy that may be influencing us in ways that we don’t understand.” Talking about sex differences in behavior is still taboo, strangely enough, in our culture. And I just love talking about taboo subjects.
They are the areas that I find the most interesting – the areas where there is a broad scientific consensus and widespread public ignorance of that fact. That was an easy one with “[The Rap Guide To] Evolution.” More than 50 percent of Americans think the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, according to the most recent census, so for me to say, “life is 3.5 billion years old, we all used to have amoebas in our family trees” – that kind of stuff is fun to say onstage because in polite conversation, it’s still seen as taboo.
What do you hope the audience will get out of your show?
Well for one thing, a feeling that science is not the elite province of some grand masters in a room, especially behavioral sciences and psychology. It’s about finding ingenious ways to measure people’s actual preferences and then see how they conform to hypotheses. I try to give people a feeling of that process unfolding onstage.
Ingenious Nature is showing at the Soho Playhouse, in Manhattan, until January 6th, 2013.