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Marc Bamuthi Joseph's /peh-LO-tah/ Grapples With the Tragedy and Triumph of Black Life

Marc Bamuthi Joseph in /peh-LO-tah/: A Futbol-Framed Freedom Suite.EXPAND
Marc Bamuthi Joseph in /peh-LO-tah/: A Futbol-Framed Freedom Suite.
Bethanie Hines

In the two years since the last presidential election, many Americans have awakened to the racism, white supremacy, and traditions of domestic terror that plague the nation. Those issues are in especially stark relief as the U.S. approaches a somber and shameful anniversary marking hundreds of years of slavery at worst and inequality at best for its black citizens.

Of course, millions of Americans have been all too aware of the limitations and dangers that exist for them as people of color, long before the unlikely election of Donald Trump was even a passing thought.

One of these people is playwright, spoken-word poet, and multihyphenate talent Marc Bamuthi Joseph, whose latest work — /peh-LO-tah/: A Futbol-Framed Freedom Suite — heads to the stage at the Lehman Theater at Miami Dade College's North Campus this Saturday.

Much like his past work, /peh-LO-tah/ (the phonetic pronunciation of the word "ball" in Spanish) draws from the artistic traditions Joseph grew up with to tell his stories. Just as he's employed hip-hop in his productions before, the playwright uses one of his childhood passions — soccer, AKA fútbol — to explore themes of identity, migration, civil rights, and gun violence in the piece.

Though those themes touch upon the issues America is reckoning with at a heightened state at the moment, Joseph wrote the play during the waning period of the Obama era, and it premiered just ten days after Trump was elected. It's a necessary reminder that Black Lives Matter arose from a critical mass of concern over police brutality toward African-Americans in particular — a problem that precedes the current administration by decades, centuries even.

Joseph says /peh-LO-tah/ began with a painful question: "How do I engage the world in such a way that I can help to teach my son to live in a country that systematically hunts him?"

Joseph, the 43-year-old son of Haitian immigrants, is grappling with the realization that he's likely to become less of a target of profiling as he advances in age. His 17-year-old son, however, "is entering his years of being a prime suspect."

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But although tragedy and its potential inform much of /peh-LO-tah/'s narrative — the play addresses the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, for example — Joseph chose to inject joy into the piece by using soccer as its framework.

"For me, soccer is where I locate joy in my body... And also, soccer — for so many of us around the world — is where joyful acts take place. So that's what the piece attempts to do... take these really big ideas, bring them down to the super-personal, ask really (hopefully) provocative questions, and maybe help the audience to think less in terms of racism with a capital R and more in terms of this guy and his son and the sport that he loves, living in a world that's incredibly complicated, just catching up to its own introspection of historical forces."

To that end, /peh-LO-tah/'s closing piece is titled "Black Joy in the Hour of Chaos." Joseph says he aimed to display black joy even in the midst of heavy subject matter because it's not often seen in media. "When we talk about the matter of black life in the last three, four years in particular, we've talked about it within the frame of grief — within the frame of rage. We're talking about the matter of black life only because something tragic has happened... For one reason or another, [black joy] doesn't seem to be as compelling a narrative device."

/peh-LO-tah/: A Futbol-Framed Freedom Suite. 8 p.m. Saturday, March 2, at the Lehman Theater at Miami Dade College North Campus, 11380 NW 27th Ave., Room 131, Miami; 305-237-8888; mdclivearts.org. Tickets cost $25 via brownpapertickets.com.

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