“An Unidentified Flying Boombox has landed in Bushwick.”
This announcement, along with a pre-show layer of purple haze, are harbingers for Brobot’s cosmic arrival. Cast out of the planet Nubian, he’s here to share the human — er, robot — experience in order to save planet earth. (The reason our blue marble is in jeopardy is never made clear, but look no further than daily headlines to grasp Brobot’s desperation to save us.)
Brobot arrives, lays down some beats, and harnesses audience enthusiasm à la Tinker Bell resuscitation to refuel his spaceship and return home. This is the flimsy and stilted premise of Darian Dauchan’s new show, The Brobot Johnson Experience, now playing at experimental powerhouse The Bushwick Starr (207 Starr Street) through March 17. Dauchan writes and stars in his a one-robot, existential spaceship-palooza, and though director Andrew Scoville keeps the pacing breezy and the staging kinetic, the show remains rather plotless: After a few numbers, a craving for conflict (or other characters) settles in. Without any dramaturgical verve, all fuel (literally absent from the ship) must come from our trusted time and space traveler.
Luckily, he has a lot of charisma. Dauchan is a celebrated spoken word artist (he was a Nuyorican Poets Cafe Grand Slam finalist in 2008), and his verbal agility sparks and crackles throughout Brobot‘s hip hop-infused score. As a performer, Dauchan is mischievous, beguiling, and energetic — not unlike a magician at a child’s birthday party. In fact the whole show felt like such an event; there’s even a conga line.
This child’s-birthday vibe did diversify The Bushwick Starr’s audience beyond its usual and loyal band of artist gremlins and gentrifying hipsters. (Is there a difference?) Impressively, there were multiple children and teens in the house who ate up Brobot even if this more jaded writer did not. Still, seeing the tweens gape and marvel at Dauchan’s performative tricks was rewarding, and who wouldn’t be transfixed by Raul Abrego’s futuristic set, Asa Benally’s appropriately cartoonish costumes, Sarah Johnston’s Star Trek-meets-House of Yes lighting, and Katherine Freer’s impeccable projections.
Still, the rocket never quite takes off. Brobot’s lessons of strained robot-human relations feel heavy-handed and overtly metaphorical, though the Adrinka symbols incorporated into the spaceship’s design carry a more profound meaning. (The program tells how these 14 symbols express various themes and values of the Asante, a matrilineal people from south-central Ghana and neighboring countries.) Each of these symbols’ meanings (from connection and ingenuity to nourishment and movement) are explored in musical numbers that include live vocal layering. The raps also include audience interaction and participation, climaxing in an intergalactic dance-a-thon to propel Brobot’s ship spaceward. The audience only tepidly joined, but the children were all in. (If my ship ever needs fueling, I’d enlist their optimism.) Perhaps this show is simply targeted for a tweenier crowd, one younger than Bushwick’s already millennial-heavy audience. This is of course a fine choice, but it does seem slightly off-brand with The Bushwick Starr’s programming, one often by and for angsty and envelope-pushing 30-somethings.
But at 80 minutes, any moments of juvenile shenanigans or awkward fourth-wall breaking quickly evaporate, and Dauchan is too kindly and magnetic an actor to sour the experience. Brobot comes to us from the year 2118, and if the next century’s men are as sensitive and playful as Dauchan, we can all have hope for the future.