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Fehinti Balogun Presents Can I Live?

In conversation with the actor, playwright, poet, and the creator of Can I Live?


NOV 15, 2022 | ISSUE 8

Filmed production, Complicité’s "Can I Live" with Fehinti Balogun. Photography by David Hewitt
Filmed production, Complicité’s Can I Live? with Fehinti Balogun. Photography by Ali Wright

Climate conversation is everywhere, and its pressing present-tension can be overwhelming. The United Nation’s recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that we are facing “code red” levels of environmental destruction, and everywhere we turn, doom-laden statistics pursue us in a relentless, deafening stampede. The seriousness of what we are facing can leave us feeling isolated and helpless. However, actor, activist and playwright Fehinti Balogun (he/him) is working to switch up the narrative, with an uplifting, educational digital performance that “toured” UK venues. Can I Live? addresses the physical manifestations of global warming through Balogun’s lens as a British-Nigerian activist, and deftly highlights the intersectionality between climate crisis and social justice.

With poetry, graphics, music, scientific fact, and narration, Balogun intertwines anecdotal snapshots of his own life with wider atrocities, mining the issues with a personal specificity rarely seen before in this conversation. Shortly after professing his love for plantains, Balogun reveals that Cameroon has experienced a 43% decrease in plantain yield due to heat and dryness. Amongst giant, translucent projected photographs of family members, our protagonist dances and raps in a joyful tribute to his Nigerian heritage—but in an instant, the light wanes, and we learn that Nigeria is losing 350,000 hectares of land a year to drought and desertification. With his head resting in his mother’s lap, Balogun faces hard truths as to why he hasn’t seen many members of his community in climate space. She argues that in a corrupt and racist system, basic survival takes precedence: “Some people are jobless. Some people are homeless. Some people are hopeless.” In this moment, Balogun’s excess of emotion and exhaustion breaks like a wave. His song “Kiss me, Hold me, Watch me Weep” explores a sentiment shared by many who lack the support they need to stay in this fight, that we may “just need to be held” to move through the storm.

In conversation with smART Magazine, Balogun discusses his influences, the role of music in truth-telling, and how Can I Live? aims to encourage safe, communal spaces for people of color who refuse to sit back and watch the world burn.

sM | Can I Live? incorporates a cacophony of performance genres. What inspires  you about this format, over a traditional theatrical framework with fictionalized characters, settings, and “plot”?

FB — Honestly, I didn’t want to try to be “clever” about it. Can I Live? is a theatrical adaptation of a climate lecture that I’ve been delivering for a while and, in those moments, it’s just me speaking to an audience. I wanted to retain the quality of that interaction, because I don’t want people to distance themselves. Sometimes, people leave the theatre thinking, “I was worried initially, but those characters received their resolution, so now I can remove myself.” It’s somehow cathartic, and I didn’t want that. Some audiences may struggle to understand what it is; it’s not just a first-person narrative monologue, or a lecture, or a gig. It’s all of it, and that’s by design. I don’t want people to be comfortable, peering into a moment in time that’s separate from them. The idea is to continually re-engage with the people watching and let them see themselves in the piece.

sM | The piece is built around a strong, insistent musical score of original songs, written and performed by you. What’s the inspiration behind the soundscape?

FB — When it came to writing the climate lecture, that has always been infused with my mom’s voice. And as for the music, I listened to a dangerous quantity of Kendrick Lamar while I was writing! Lyrically, I’m very inspired by my contemporaries from drama school; Jamael Westman, Abraham Popoola, Tom Edward Kane. Their on-beat lyricism is wild. In terms of making beats: Kanye. Then there’s afro beats. WizKid, Burna Boy. I listened to a lot of saxophonists, choral pieces, Jacob Collier. I was trying to more deeply understand the vocal instrument, and what it can do.

I truly do love music. Like, I love, love music. And I wanted to create something that felt as powerful and moving as I feel when certain music hits me. That raw exposure and truth can feel like it passes through the artist and directly into you. It’s beyond words; I don't know if it’s acceptance, but it feels like vindication or validation, because you hear someone feeling the depths that you hope to feel, want to feel, or have felt, but haven’t been able to express. By absorbing all these influences, I was working to develop and create the best version of my own voice to tell this story.

At the beginning of the process, I felt as though I was stepping into a realm that I hadn’t yet earned the keys to. When I rap or sing, it speaks more loudly than performing as an actor, because in that territory, I get to choose my persona. There are identity issues to unpack when trying to establish your voice in music, but what I was trying to do above anything else was make my voice accessible to everyone, and not have it be just a temporary, throwaway commentary on climate change. It’s often the case that people remember how you made them feel more than they remember what you say.

sM | How did the Climate Emergency lectures in London/South England lead to your involvement and collaboration with Complicité Theatre Company?

FB — Blind luck, and seized opportunity! I was delivering climate talks around London and South England and was invited to speak at The Young Vic. They hold weekly meetings every Wednesday morning to discuss the political landscape of theatre, to congregate with members of the public and talk about our industry. Polly Gifford, who was working at Complicité at the time, had heard my pre-lecture piece and we got talking; I just blurted out “I’d like to turn it into a play!” and I’m glad I did, because she invited me to go in for a meeting.

I had to learn on my feet, quickly, how to pitch what I had envisioned, how to structure a play. I went into the meeting (with what I would call -5 experience!) and described this part-mixtape, part-climate-lecture that I had in my mind. They came to see one of my talks at The Actor’s Centre and I think it was then that they understood where I was coming from. Then, after a phone call with Simon McBurney of Complicité, we started preparing for the first round of workshops. They began just two weeks later. Can I Live? was initially meant to be a live play back when we started in 2019, but (like so many things) its form changed over the course of the pandemic. When we finally came face-to-face again, we rehearsed the piece for a week and shot the film in three days. It moved very quickly.

sM | What do you hope that your audiences, particularly BIPOC participants, took away from the scheduled online workshops, and from Can I Live? as a whole?

FB — I think we exist in a culture of immediacy, and it encourages intense, narrow examination of the issues that end too quickly. They stop us being able to examine the root of our problems. For instance, when we talk about race, ableism, feminism, the safety of women, all these things that we should be addressing, the problem gets placed under a microscope for a short amount of time, and then we just move on. These issues deserve better than two minutes in the spotlight, before being forgotten.

The post-show discussions were always going to be part of the piece, even before it changed format. It was essential to me that this wasn’t another instance of performative activism. Theatre and entertainment are well practiced at going, “Look at this issue, isn’t that bad? Ok, peace out.” And that’s it. I just had no interest in doing that. From its inception, Can I live? needed to be a body of work that connected people, like a directory.

It’s about giving people the tools and the permission they need to begin, and that’s specifically why we did a digital tour of these UK venues. Each venue’s online event was facilitated by someone local to that area who is part of a grassroots group. We encouraged people to find confidence in their capability, and importantly, helped them to find kinfolk in those spaces. I encouraged people to swap details, to talk to each other, and to arm themselves, together.

We also fail to highlight the intersectionality between issues, which is a problem; they all seem like separate things, and as a result people feel overloaded by multiple issues, thinking they aren’t linked, when a lot of the time they are. We’re too quick to reward, and too quick to forget, and it leads nowhere. What we’re in desperate need of is a sense of community and guidance, spaces to keep the conversation flowing, and practical things to do. Slow, supported growth, with roots.

Can I Live? is a digital performance, produced by Complicité Theatre Company in association with The Barbican, supported by Oxford Playhouse.