Poet Combines Art and Sport in New Performance About Black Culture

    Marc Bamuthi Joseph has been performing since childhood. From regional theater productions to Broadway, he has made performance a lifelong endeavor. His latest production, titled /peh-LO-tah/, opened at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on Nov. 18, and will continue to tour through notable venues like Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

    An interesting meld of themes and mediums, /peh-LO-tah/ uses hip hop and soccer to explore black culture and history.

    Along with 25 million children worldwide, Joseph played soccer as a kid. He says that one of his first memories, from age six, is of scoring a goal when playing with other children who lived on his grandfather’s street in Haiti.

    Now 41 years old, Joseph has translated soccer into a medium and symbol of freedom. In fact, he was inspired to write /peh-LO-tah/ after travelling to Cape Town, South Africa for the World Cup in 2009.

    “South Africa was the site of [a] very specific liberation struggle, so I couldn’t help but be curious about these parallels of a sport that is an instrument of liberation and joy for so many and this country, which for the better part of the 20th century was riddled by the systemic racism and oppression,” said Joseph. “It kind of opened up this question of whether or not the investment was reinforcing part of the economic legacy of apartheid.”

    But while exploring black oppression overseas, Joseph recalled the systematic racism in his own backyard.

    The Black Lives Matter movement, which was the response to the shooting of unarmed black people as well as other forms of oppression, was part of the inspiration behind /peh-LO-tah/.

    But while these very real struggles are well-mentioned throughout the operatic performance, Joseph and his cast mates also celebrate black joy, which is often overshadowed by negative news stories.

    Born in Queens in 1975, Joseph was well attuned to hip-hop culture from an early age. And as he’s grown, so has hip-hop.

    “The potency is that it’s movement-driven in all senses of the word and it’s an aggregating force,” said Joseph. “It’s broadly diplomatic and exciting in terms of its intellect.”

    As a performance, /peh-LO-tah/ plays with the relationship between art and sport. A sport as rhythmic as soccer, especially, provides the groundwork for dynamic choreography that complements the sounds of African drums and spoken word, in both English and Brazilian Portuguese.

    In the words of Joseph himself, /peh-LO-tah/ is “a dance about the economy, choreographed to the rhythm of the beautiful game.”