Words by Molly Lipson
photographs by ejatu shaw
In his new theatre-film hybrid performance, the I May Destroy You actor tackles the climate crisis through the lens of a Black man.
In 2017, young actor Fehinti Balogun was excited to be in his first theatre show. It was a Royal Shakespeare Company production that touched on the climate crisis, something Balogun had not previously given much thought to. The show changed that. The subject matter sparked the impending sense of doom, grief and anxiety that has become so commonplace in the Global North as our eyes are—far too late—being opened to the true extent of global warming.
Not content with sitting idly by, Balogun tried to use his clout as a lead actor in the show to inspire change at the theatre. He asked for a meeting with the bosses about swapping out single-use plastic bottles for cans. His so-called clout got him nowhere—no one agreed to meet with him.
Spiralling faster and faster into that all-too familiar pit of despair, Balogun eventually attended an Extinction Rebellion (XR) talk and, later, started helping out the civil disobedience-based climate movement behind the scenes. Being a Black man in the UK’s predominantly white climate space was not something he could ignore, not least because his mum refused to let him. After returning from filming abroad just after XR’s April rebellion, where the group blocked the streets of central London for over a week in protest of the government’s inaction on climate catastrophe, culminating in over 1,000 arrests, Balogun’s mum expressed her disapproval of her son’s involvement. “Why are you sacrificing your career, which has only just started?” she would admonish.
I realised that I needed to message and communicate to people that didn’t feel messaged or communicated to in order to galvanize and activate the masses.
“In our last argument,” Balogun says, “I put my phone under the pillow and I recorded the entire thing. I took those voice clips and I structured a climate lecture around her voice.” This lecture used scientific facts and data, similar to the Extinction Rebellion talk he had attended, but focused on people of colour and how the crisis is inextricably linked to their cultures, families and heritages, an approach he found seriously lacking in the mainstream narrative. “I realised that I needed to message and communicate to people that didn’t feel messaged or communicated to in order to galvanize and activate the masses,” he explains.
Three years later, that talk has become Can I Live?, a hybrid theatre performance-film conceived, written, produced by and featuring Balogun, in which he showcases his extraordinary talent for rap, music, dance and spoken word. He is, in short, a star. But, true to his belief in community, Can I Live? is not a one-man show. Balogun collaborated with production company Complicité and its director Simon McBurney, the Bush Theatre’s artistic director Daniel Bailey, musical director Khalil Madovi and a host of other impassioned artists to create what has been called a “brilliant and necessary production.”
The show begins with a view we know all too well: Fehinti is on Zoom. He speaks to the camera as if in his mother’s house during lockdown, conversationally introducing us to members of his family; his brother, his grandma, his mum all pop up throughout the show—his mum even in a speaking role. Humanizing the crisis is pivotal to Balogun’s story here, a reminder that alongside the hard data, which he also includes, real people, real communities and families—“My uncle, and my aunty, and my aunty, and my aunty and my mum,” as Balogun lists off in one song—are on the frontlines of the devastating impact of extreme weather.
For Daniel Bailey, who describes himself as “always being committed to things around Black culture,” this was crucial to his journey of realization. He had long felt that movements like Extinction Rebellion simply weren’t connecting the dots between systemic racism and the climate crisis. “It really took Fehinti going, look, this is how it affects you. Those floods that you see in Jamaica —which is where my family are from—the cyclones, the hurricanes: all of that is having a direct effect when you’re sending money back home for a new roof. Fehinti was talking about the exact same things that I was so passionate about, but I was siloed.”
It seems to me that some of the people who are most affected are the ones who have been historically stolen from. Climate change is modern colonialism.
Co-director Simon McBurney agreed to work on the show before he’d even read the script. “What’s so interesting about the piece is that it’s intimate and personal, and at the same time, universally relevant, applicable, and global,” he says. Despite being a self-described “baby boomer,” McBurney, who has also starred in films like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, takes an intersectional view of the world that has only recently been embraced to some degree in the mainstream. “Everything that interests me is about asking questions about how division enriches people who want to remain in power; … The idea that there is something called nature is absurd, because we are all part of nature and we can’t escape it, just as we cannot escape the planet.”
The soundtrack of this piece alone could be an instant hit. The juxtaposition of joyful, upbeat musical interludes with hard-hitting facts about how Nigeria, the country where Balogun’s family is from, is being hit by drought and desertification, famine and flooding, creates a sense of urgency so powerful it brings tears to your eyes. “Nigeria pollutes almost ten times less per capita than England,” Balogun says almost exactly halfway through the show. “It seems to me that some of the people who are most affected are the ones who have been historically stolen from. Climate change is modern colonialism.” This crucial and often overlooked root cause of global warming is another key theme of Can I Live?, explored through a medium that defies traditional artistic presentation. The very construction of the show, with its cinematic slant, gentle animations and theatrical displays, serves to emphasise the importance of breaking away from the current narrative.
Musical director Khalil Madovi jumped at the chance to be involved with the project when he found out it was being led by a Black man: “Throughout the years, [the climate crisis] is a topic that I’ve somewhat touched base with, but never from a perspective that has made me care. Never from a perspective that’s made me want to actually engage with it,” he explains. “One line in the play that I really love is that it’s not necessarily about dealing with your personal guilt, what you’re made to feel you’re doing wrong, because it’s actually a systemic thing. So understanding that and allowing that to reframe how I’m looking at it as well, has been probably the biggest part of my journey, because I think that’s going to be the key that will allow me to gain access to what the most effective action is.”
For Balogun, it is this very action that draws the show together. Throughout its online tour, taking place from October 2021 onwards, viewers of Can I Live? are encouraged to stay online after the screening to chat with local activists in their area. “I don’t want any of this to be perfunctory. If art is worth anything, let my currency as an artist turn into actualization instead of just decoration and pomp,” Balogun says.
You can attend an online screening of Can I Live? hosted by your local theatre or community group by signing up here. Tickets start at just £1 and range upwards on a sliding scale. The performance will be screened during COP26 in Glasgow next month.