marc bamuthi joseph & the living word project, /peh-LO-tah/ @ mca chicago, saturday, 07 october 2017.
Like a more radical version of Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, Marc Bamuthi Joseph and the Living Word Project’s /peh-LO-tah/ explores the political implications of “the beautiful game.” It is also a work about diasporic global black culture. Most of all this “futbol framed freedom suite” draws connections between soccer and the search for emancipation within and across the black world. The piece begins with pain, with a reference to—almost a reenactment of—the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Against this trauma, it moves to the pleasures of freedom found, if temporarily, on the soccer field, as well as the lessons that can be learned from soccer as a game and a kind of way of life.
Among the best sections of /peh-LO-tah/ are the allegorical readings of the different soccer positions, understood in a global framework. Why is it that Americans always want to be goalies, how is it that defense players teach us about fierce survival, where is it that the daring virtuosity of the striker makes its mark, when should one learn about boundaries that are real and others that are imaginary, as a soccer player discovers the relational, moving qualities of what it means to be caught offsides, or, alternatively, time their runs just right to reach breakthroughs?
Joseph connects spoken word to movement, song, and video imagery, linking his personal experiences as a Haitian-American playing soccer in Haiti and Queens, New York, to global explorations of the game and its political implications in South Africa, Brazil, Haiti, and elsewhere. The field is a place of freedom in Joseph’s work, and also a placeless escape from the pressures of the larger, racist, and unjust world. The field gathers family around it, and sheds light on larger inequities beyond the goalposts and nets and lines that define it.
What Joseph calls the “energetic reciprocity” of call-and-response singing throughout /peh-LO-tah/ suffused the piece with a moving blues ethos. The singing was strong, tapping into a mix of individual flair and collective teamwork much like soccer itself. The movement was never stunning in the piece, I found, but it was always humane, with nods to soccer moves and religious rituals, to aging and to the power of imitation to produce new self awareness.
At times the spoken word at the heart of the piece felt a bit rhythmically stale—not bad to be clear, but just too familiar, cast in the same cadences, tempos, and rhyme patterns that Joseph and other spoken word artists often employ. But the content of his texts were deep and rich, full of connections between anxieties of self and family being in personal danger and larger structures of public crisis. Most of all, the dream of achieving freedom, like the scoring a goal in a game that does not feature high point levels, arrived in /peh-LO-tah/ as something joyously worth pursuing even when difficult to attain.
In one of the best sections of Joseph’s piece, which featured Joseph himself along with Amara Tabor-Smith, Tommy Shepherd, Traci Tolmaire, and Yaw Agyeman, a meditation on passing suggests that it is the key to success in soccer (and possibly in life). When young players discover that passing the ball is the best, fastest, most effective way of moving it forward toward a potential opportunity to score a goal, everything changes. I remember this myself playing the game. After that, the idea of being able to complete the successful pass almost became more important than scoring, at least to my mind. It was far more interesting, challenging, and, in a sport that values beauty as much as success, aesthetically appealing. When I learned how to complete a “give-and-go” pass to a Japanese player on my middle-school team, it allowed our team to play at a far higher level than before. But it did far more than that. He did not speak much English, I did not speak Japanese; however, through the give-and-go we connected. Finding the right angles, exploring space, taking turns, recognizing and being recognized, moving in relation to others—as Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Living Word Project’s /peh-LO-tah/ powerfully suggest, these become modes of connecting, and not just in soccer. They also show us a way of potentially breaking free—for the truer, more beautiful goals we might reach, beyond the back of the net.