‘Brobot Johnson’ Pioneers Black Futures Onstage

Photo by Maria Baranova

I went to see The Brobot Johnson Experience a few days after my first viewing of Marvel’s Black Panther. With the Obama portraits having just been revealed a few days before that, I didn’t think anything could make my black self’s Black History Month any better. Still a freshly-minted Wakandan, I sat in The Bushwick Starr audience as Darian Dauchan heartfully delivered an intricate performance as a beatboxing, rhyme-spitting, singing Brobot. As Brobot layered his voice on a looper inside of his busted spaceship dubbed The LL Cool J attempting to return home to Planet Nubian, my black theater nerd fantasies were satisfactorily satiated, as was my actual palate (I won’t give it all away, but Brobot employs a particularly clever use of African diasporic food). Needless to say, my black history month significantly improved.

Dauchan’s one-person transmedia piece has roots in Hip-Hop Theater and African Ritual Theater, but it perhaps fits most squarely into the exciting, fairly-recent trend of Afrofuturistic art reaching the masses. Afrofuturism, in a nutshell, is a genre and liberation tool expressed in literature, music, visual art, film, and often multiple fields at once, where black people project themselves into futures they are otherwise excluded from. In these futures, the proverbial hero/ine and technology itself is often used by and for black bodies rather than on them. This is contrary to the harsh historical facts of black life (see Henrietta Lacks/HeLa, Norplant, and The Tuskegee Experiment to begin), and the continued weathering oppression that comes at black bodies everyday. The term “Afrofuturism” was coined in the mid-90s, but the genre has officially been around since the 1950s, first popularized by the work of jazz great Sun Ra. R&B artist and actress Janelle Monae’s first album, The ArchAndroid released in 2010, reignited the current wave of Afrofuturism in pop culture through her alterego – a hybrid human-robot named Cindi Mayweather. Black Panther has brought the crest of the wave to an all-time-high, but the genre itself has a long history. My black sci-fi lovin-self has been alarmed by the lack of understanding I’ve seen in recent critiques of Brobot and Black Panther alike, that falsely identify Afrofuturism as a new genre. It’s not. It is certainly more visible and apparently relevant to more people than ever before. We, as a culture, seem to be searching for answers that black futures may provide us.

And so, arrives Afrofuturism in the theater. Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon’s opera adapted from the infamous Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower played to sold-out audiences at The Public’s Under the Radar Festival in January, and now folks have a chance to see a hip-hop inspired robot use West African symbology and the act of remembrance to get himself home.

The Brobot Johnson Experience brings its own unique brand of lightness and hope from a yet-to-be world. Dauchan strikes an elegant balance between unapologetic blackness and inviting vulnerability that created a celebration of humanity in a seamless, charmed way. It was apparent to me as I watched fellow audience members gleefully dance and stomp along, that community truly matters to this work. The black past and black future are here – presently.

There are two particularly exciting opportunities coming up to see the show at the Starr:

A post-show panel, “From ‘Kindred’ to ‘Black Panther’: Afrofuturism and the Black Superhero” will follow the performance on March 8th. Tickets are available here.

And, BLERD Night is this Saturday, the 10th (use the code BLERD for $20 tix).

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