Can I Live? review – privilege, protest and the climate crisis
There is a moment in Fehinti Balogun’s one-hour show when he recalls finding himself in a room full of climate activists with not one face that looks like his. The protest group Extinction Rebellion has certainly been called out for being too white and too middle-class before now, but this powerful cri de coeur grapples with the question of inclusivity in environmental activism not only by connecting it to class and race but to geopolitics, imperial history, and his own journey into activism in the context of his British Nigerian family’s cultural attitudes.
Balogun is the writer and central performer of the show, produced by Complicité in association with the Barbican and supported by Oxford Playhouse. He tells his story through a mix of hip-hop and spoken word, facts and arguments, and there are moments of whimsy alongside rage and vulnerability. “There is privilege to the environmental fight,” he says, but he also cites crop failures and rising temperatures in the African continent, tying this to the depleting legacy of western colonialism: “Countries most affected are the ones most historically stolen from.”
Under the direction of Daniel Bailey, with Simon McBurney as co-director, Balogun begins with a familiar “Zoom theatre” naturalism, eating, taking phone calls, wittering somewhat until the backdrop shifts (“I’m not actually at home. I’m in a studio with a crew”). The film then switches in mood and setting, from music gig to direct address to debates and surreal sequences, revealing its artifice as it does so. It plays interestingly with form, although April De Angelis’s Extinct at Theatre Royal Stratford East recently did something similar and here it does not build to a bigger effect.
Balogun is a strong singer and performer. The music (by Balogun, Khalil Madovi, Chloe Rianna, Terell Farrell and Josh Sneesby) is infectious, while the lyrics (by Balogun) address road-block protests and carbon emissions.
Like Extinct, the film includes a welter of statistics to bolster its argument: graphs, graphics, words emphatically printed across screens. As stark as these may be, and as intense as Balogun’s delivery is, many sound familiar and some seem shoehorned in.
The show is more engaging when it is debating the lack of activism from people of colour, which, it is compellingly argued, is not out of apathy but necessity. Many are too busy surviving, either jobless or “waiting for papers from the Home Office”, argues Bunmi Adedeji, who plays Balogun’s mother. “Those people are not going to put themselves at the forefront of climate activism.” Balogun’s group of friends, played by actors, make a similar case and the film does not resolve this Gordian knot, although its upbeat ending offers examples of some of those who have got involved and made a difference.