The game of soccer becomes the game of life in “/peh-LO-tah/”
For a brief five-day engagement, poet and playwright Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s vibrant, physical tale “/peh-LO-tah/” takes the stage at ArtsEmerson. Presented May 1 through May 5, the show explores both the joy of soccer culture and the corrupt corporate systems around it. Drawing on his own cultural experiences growing up in Haiti and visiting Rio de Janeiro and Johannesburg, Joseph encourages audiences to re-evaluate joy as a tool for surviving the contemporary world.
“‘/peh-LO-tah/’ was a way to investigate how this thing that creates so much joy is also complicated by many of the same geopolitical factors that inform much of our shared history, across borders, across race, across culture,” Joseph says.
While visiting South Africa in 2009 just before the World Cup, Joseph was struck by the economic situation in the country. He says though significant investment was being made in the infrastructure of Johannesburg, it was also reinforcing the unequal economic legacy of apartheid. This led the poet and artist to examine the forces at work in the sport that he loves so dearly.
In “/peh-LO-tah/” actors recite poetry, perform choreography and soccer exercises, and sprint across the stage, all at once. Joseph says that physicality is an essential part of the discussion. He says, “Sweat is a kind of currency. Labor is a kind of exposition of value. It’s not just physicality in terms of dance; it’s physicality in terms of work. The display of effort.”
The soccer field and the rules therein serve as a guidebook for life throughout the show. Borders on the field become borders between countries, evading the offense becomes evading racial profiling, the game on the field quickly becomes the higher-stakes game of life.
For Joseph, these life lessons aren’t limited to the stage. He’s instituted a community outreach component of the performance called “Moving and Passing” that works with young immigrants of color to help them embrace both their artistic and their athletic legacies. He says seeing the impact these programs have on young participants has been one of the most rewarding parts of the process.
Though the “Moving and Passing” program won’t accompany the show in Boston, Joseph is certain the show will resonate with the community. “More than anything, Boston is a home for immigrants. The way that the immigrant story is centered in ‘/peh-LO-tah/’ I think will be particularly resonant,” says Joseph. “And, of course, much to my chagrin as a New Yorker, Boston is also a tremendous sports town. I think it will really resonate there as well.”