Poet/playwright Darian Dauchan discusses Death Boogie
The show merges poetry, hip hop, satire, music and comic book visuals
This article is from 2012.
At the beginning of last year, Darian Dauchan and his old college friend Jen McGrath sat down to work on the script of Death Boogie. He has since come to think of it as a ‘hip hop Braveheart’, but that was before there was any thought of bringing it to Edinburgh. The working concept at that stage was more that Pee-Wee Herman meets Che Guevara and gets his consciousness raised via some mighty basslines. While they figured out the technicalities of live loops in Harlem, the headlines were full of Tahrir Square and political ferment in Egypt. ‘As the Arab spring unfolded throughout our original creative process,’ director McGrath recalls, ‘it only became clearer how necessary this work was.’
Over the previous decade Dauchan, a Californian-born actor, had made a name for himself off Broadway. He also played music with his band, the Mighty Third Rail. In 2006, ‘frustrated with where the country was going - Bush had just been re-elected,’ he began writing and performing poetry. ‘I always joke,’ he drawls from beneath his omnipresent fedora, ‘that George Bush made me a poet.’
His live Obama poem was a YouTube hit, he won competitions and the already politically literate New Yorkers who attend spoken word performances in smoking basement clubs loved him. ‘Slamming was great,’ he says. ‘But I was looking for what else I could do with it. I wanted to develop something that would combine all these elements I’d been working on over the last eight years.
The Mighty Third Rail – Dauchan with upright bassist Ian Bagette and violinist Curtis Stewart – fancied making a concept album. As Dauchan worked on the lyrics, the concept grew arms and legs, eventually becoming Death Boogie. ‘I wanted to look at altruism and courage,’ says Dauchan. ‘A major influence was the myth of Prometheus, the Greek god who stole fire from Zeus, king of the gods, and gave it to mankind. He was chained up and left to the mercy of the vultures for his troubles. You do the right thing and you pay the price.’
The character of Victor Spartan, a downtrodden everyman straight out of a Bruce Springsteen ballad, emerged. ‘He’s an everyday guy with a comatose lifestyle,’ Dauchan explains. ‘A Pee-Wee Hermanish character.’
Pee-Wee Herman? ‘You know, a nerdy little guy. A bit like Mr Bean. He’s got that awkwardness, he’s agitated all the time, at all the things that are happening to him.’ He describes performing Death Boogie as ‘crawling inside him, walking on eggshells.’
He is joined by the Poet, Victor’s alter ego, guiding him on the journey of enlightenment that is revealed to him through what Dauchan calls ‘groovealicious dreams’. Other characters – including a prisoner of war who detonates himself at the end – jump in and out of the narrative, all voiced by Dauchan.
The show is ‘very hip hop, with beatboxing and a hi-energy vibe.’ But there is none of the macho posturing and urban sexism of rap here: Dauchan is a poet not a rapper. He agrees with Saul Williams’ (another hip hop poet) distinction: ‘Rappers are superhuman. They admit no flaws, they always have to be the best. Poets show great vulnerability.’
For him, rapping is too restrictive. ‘I follow my own cadence, inspired by hip-hop, some riding the beat, others on their own. My rhyme scheme is not always AA-BB. I talk it out. It gives me more freedom.’
Death Boogie is such a richly-textured show that many of the audience stumble out in shock, vowing to come and see it again as soon as possible. As well as the words and music – parts of which are improvised – there is a live comic book projection. ‘It’s an intense hour of sensory overload,’ says Dauchan. ‘The illustrations create the world that’s a backdrop and the comic book characters let you see Victor within his world, his own landscape.’
Dauchan was always clear that, as Death Boogie had such universal themes, it could not be too geographically specific. ‘It’s not necessarily rooted in reality but it is rooted in truth. We wanted to create a world that was like Gotham City, that was beyond American.
And as the show took shape, Dauchan and McGrath were astonished to watch Death Boogie popping up all over the place: Egypt, Occupy Wall Street. So many people having the courage to stand up for what they believe in, despite the risk.
They also watched as their savings drained away developing the show. It is coming to Edinburgh thanks to another kind of people power: Dauchan and McGrath raised the $20,000 to bring the show to Scotland via Kickstarter, a New York crowdfunding initiative.
‘Basically, we all called everybody we ever knew in our entire life,’ Dauchan recalls. ‘I would say, hey, what’s up, I know I haven’t spoken to you for however many years but this is what’s happening.’
‘What we really had in our favor,’ says McGrath, ‘is that the grassroots nature of a Kickstarter campaign aligns with the message of Death Boogie. The show is about having the courage to stand up and fight for what you believe in; we believe in the project so we aimed for the stars.
‘The overwhelming support for the work, and getting it to a wider audience helped solidify just how important that message is. It became not just a dream but a duty to help spread Death Boogie around the globe.’
It’s a melting pot audience, drawn to the music, the poetry, the multi-media method as well as the political message. The Occupy movement and the US presidential election have created an appetite for political satire that is accessible to a generation with a YouTube clip attention span. It is deliberately universal and non-specific: a starting point rather than a fully worked-up solution to the woes of the world.
‘I think the show strikes such a chord because I think our humanity unites us all,’ says McGrath. ‘We can also relate to how difficult that can be, how the pressures of daily life, or taking the easy option, can stifle that passion. As we’re seeing so many people standing up for what they believe in worldwide, the message resonates louder and clearer than ever.
‘Aside from the political agenda, Death Boogie also hits people hard because they are entertained. The poetry is beautiful and thought provoking, the music jams, the comic book illustrations are zany and fun. We set out to create a theatrical experience where you leave feeling inspired and moved and had fun in the process.’
Death Boogie, Assembly Roxy, 623 3030, 4–27 Aug (13, 20), 7.50pm, £10–£12 (£8–£10). Previews 2 & 3 Aug, £5.