3 stars out of 4
Marc Bemuthi Joseph/ The Living Word Project’s /peh-LO-tah/-- a futbol framed freedom suite is an interdisciplinary performance that interrogates the experience (and lack) of freedom through spoken word, music, video, and dance—all framed by the author’s love of soccer. With its flawless ensemble of performers and exquisite choreography, the show scores a few goals, but overreaches and under delivers, not quite winning the game completely.
/peh-LO-tah/ opens with five performers in hoodies chanting “Dame la pelota” (give me the ball), moving rhythmically as if practicing the game in sync. Video footage of a black teenager is overlayed with a recorded call between someone reporting “suspicious behavior” and the police. The lights come up on MBJ, dribbling the ball, with what appeared to be a hoodie--really a towel on his head--and he proceeds to give us an eloquent spoken word solo. Dancers re-appear, elegantly fusing African, Latin, and modern dance vocabularies. Dancers break into song and harmonize beautifully, before one breaks off to give a soliloquy. This interplay of media continues and gives us some gorgeous moments: a fierce, sexy Brazilian dance sequence performed by Traci Tolmaire, a tap shoe-less tap dance by Joseph set to vocals by Yaw Agyeman, and Joseph’s clever wordsmithing set to David Szlasa’s video design. The ensemble is tight and each member brings presence and spark to the production. They pour their sweat into it, playing on double meanings of ‘goal’, ‘pass’ and ‘run’, offering a collage of scenes personal and political.
And yet... and yet. Despite the technological brilliance and the original framing device, I was left wanting to be truly, deeply moved by this production. The piece is inspired by the elation a player feels in scoring a goal; the total joy of losing yourself (and all the afflictions the world forces upon you) in the moment. In trying to do so much (the piece explores blackness and identity, immigration and parenthood, women’s rights and black love), and relying too heavily on monologue and lecture, the piece fails to take the emotional risks necessary to get the audience to feel that elation for themselves. I’m not a soccer fan, but I would’ve loved if the piece had tempted me to be one, if the piece had made me viscerally feel the danger and the exhilaration that it described to me with words. Like so much “political art,” the overtly political can get in the way of the art-making. I’m not saying black love and joy aren’t important issues to put on stage; they obviously are (and a full, diverse audience made clear the demand for this work). But if the power of art is--as was mentioned by the artists in the post-show talkback—to bypass our rational brains and pierce our emotions instead, then this piece of art still has some evolving to do. To touch us like an Alvin Ailey or a James Baldwin, it still has to find its footing in its medium.
One weekend only: through October 8. The MCA is at 220 E Chicago; call 312-397-4010, or visit www.mcachicago.org/stage for information on the MCA season.