In an electric ‘/peh-LO-tah/,’ soccer and the perils of being black
In the moments before
“/peh-LO-tah/’’ gets underway, a soccer ball sits on the otherwise bare Robert J. Orchard Stage inside the Paramount Center, gleaming in the spotlight.
Soon the stage is full in every sense — with performers, movement, music, voices, screen imagery, ideas — but that soccer ball is never far from your memory.
It is soccer, a.k.a. futbol, that serves as the connective tissue in the frequently mesmerizing “/peh-LO-tah/,’’ a poetic and impassioned meditation on race, on racism, and on the experience of immigration that is structured as a hybrid of spoken word, song, dance, video projections, news footage, and game highlights. The complexity of “the beautiful game’’ serves as an analogue for the complexity of black life, underscored by devices such as a supertitle that introduces a performer with the words: “The Midfielder explains Black Lives Matter.’’
Presented by ArtsEmerson, “/peh-LO-tah/’’ (the pronunciation of pelota, the Spanish word for ball) is narrated by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, who created and wrote it with the Living Word Project. He explores the cultural impact of soccer in Brazil and South Africa (where he saw World Cup games), as well as the game’s beckoning promise of freedom within a wider context of racial inequality — its contradictions, in other words. But “/peh-LO-tah/’’ also concerns itself with sexism, social justice, identity, parenthood, heritage, and aging.
The son of Haitian parents, he says early in the performance: “Everything I know about navigating America, I picked up by playing this game. Moving without the ball is the immigrant story: Don’t stop running. Win by passing.’’
Of course, navigating America in a black skin can be perilous. Just how perilous is underscored in “/peh-LO-tah/’’ by audio of the infamous 2012 recording of George Zimmerman’s call to the police about “a real suspicious guy’’: Trayvon Martin, who is shown in video footage. “So when my son turns to me after another black boy death/ It is time for the talk/ It’s his rite of passage,’’ says Bamuthi Joseph somberly. Later in the performance, Eric Garner’s chokehold death at the hands of a police officer in 2014 is hauntingly evoked.
Plenty of stage time is devoted, and justifiably so, to four other cast members: Yaw Agyeman, Delina P. Brooks, Traci Tolmaire, and Tommy Shepherd, who also composed the propulsive music. Spinning, kicking, stretching, clapping, or sometimes just walking slowly in a circle and singing wordlessly, the quartet is crucial to the electric atmosphere that is generated during “/peh-LO-tah/.’’ Tolmaire in particular is an explosive dancer.
Director Michael John Garces and choreographer Stacey Printz deserve credit for ensuring that the interactions between movement and text are so tight and precise. The text is overly abstruse at times and marred by facile rhymes such as “how the future is passed from the past,’’ but what remains consistently impressive is Bamuthi Joseph’s ability, as both writer and performer, to synthesize multiple elements into a compelling and unified big picture.
Upon reaching middle age and developing some gray in his beard, it occurs to him that “For the first time in my black-bodied existence, I’m now slightly less likely to get got by the police than by . . . life. Blood bumps prostates and polyps. . .’’
Bamuthi Joseph has a gift for creating and delivering the kind of maxims that have you shaking your head in agreement (“Joy is a human right’’), lines rife with double meaning (“I’m just a lone man on a wide field, playing the world’s game’’), and questions that stop you in your tracks with their blunt immediacy: “When’s the last time you truly felt free?’’
Conceived and written by Marc Bamuthi Joseph/The Living Word Project. Developed with and directed by Michael John Garces. Choreography by Stacey Printz. Composed by Tommy Shepherd. Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Robert J. Orchard Stage, Paramount Center, Boston, through May 5. Tickets $20-$85, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org