Since he was a little boy growing up in Queens, Marc Bamuthi Joseph has been performing—first in commercials, then in regional theater and on Broadway. His latest piece, /peh-LO-tah/, explores the Black Lives Matter movement along with soccer and black joy—through hip-hop, spoken word, dance, and video.
It opens at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on Nov. 18 and then will go on tour, stopping at venues including Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Joseph, the chief of program and pedagogy at YBCA, says he loves being on stage. But he wants something more.
“Performing is fun, but transformation is the goal,” he said. “I love process and collaboration and discovery, and it is in the rehearsal process where both the work and I as a performer are transformed.”
Another thing Joseph, the son of Haitian immigrants, loves is soccer. In /peh LO tah/, he recalls one of his first memories of scoring a goal at 6 and being overjoyed; of running uphill barefoot on limestone with other boys on his grandfather’s block in Haiti, chasing a ball bandaged with loose socks; of listening to his beloved team, the New York Cosmos, on the radio.
But Joseph and the four other performers in the piece bring out other sides of soccer—the globalism, corruption, and colonialism in the sport—through spoken word, dance, video projections, and music. Joseph talks about his trips to Brazil and South Africa to see the World Cup, and the performers use South African and Brazilian movement styles as well as techniques from the soccer field in the dances. The live music includes gospel, bossa nova, beatboxing, and hip-hop, and the driving question is of trying to find freedom in your body.
Joseph came up with the idea for /peh-LO-tah/, when he was in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2009 for the World Cup and watched the country get ready for the athletic competition. He saw investments in the country’s airports and hotels—but not in, say, water distribution systems for everybody or overall infrastructure.
“South Africa was the site of 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,” Joseph said. “It kind of opened up this question of whether or not the investment was reinforcing part of the economic legacy of apartheid.”
Soccer means freedom to him, says Joseph. And he believes the opposite of freedom isn’t slavery but perpetual fear. That led him to explore something at the forefront in the news and Joseph’s mind, the Black Lives Matter movement, as a response to police shootings of unarmed black people. And /peh-LO-tah/ also deals with something else that tends not to be part of the national conversation: black joy.
“I have a 14-year-old son, I have an 11-year-old daughter, and the visibility of how certain members of the police force hunt brown-skinned people is something I have to talk to my children about,” Joseph said. “Running and deftness in soccer were instruments I used when I was their age to be free. What do my kids use to be free? The piece toggles back and forth between these questions of systemic oppression and how they play out in contemporary context in the matter of black life and in reflection on and search for black joy.”
Joseph founded the poetry slam group Youth Speaks and co-founded Life Is Living, which organizes festivals celebrating urban life and environmental action. He’s a National Poetry Slam champion and the recipient of the United States Artists Rockefeller Fellowship.
Joseph says he doesn’t really write plays but rather “poems on an operatic scale.” Hip-hop is a driving force in his work because, as he was born in Queens in 1975, it shaped who he is as a performer and a person.
“My understanding of dramatic narrative comes as much from Chuck D of Public Enemy and KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions as from Shakespeare or Beckett or Molière,” he said. “Everything I am is everywhere I’ve been.”
Roberta Uno, the director of Arts in a Changing America in Valencia, California, has known Joseph since she commissioned his Words Become Flesh, a sort of letter to his unborn child. Joseph has a poetic soul and a tremendous intellect, she says, as well as a facility with both words and the body. She says with his theater pieces that combine a number of elements, he’s figured out a way to reach an audience that previously didn’t exist.
“In his work, identity lines blur between disciplines, and there’s a lot of fluidity,” she said. “Looking at Bamuthi’s work, it’s on that future edge of fearlessness in terms of not being confined to the mic as a poet or to the way a dance is made.”
/peh-LO-tah/ runs from Nov. 18 to 20 at YBCA, San Francisco. Details and tickets here.