A line in the dance-theater show “/peh-LO-tah/” hits a timely raw nerve: “The Defender explains why Americans suck at soccer.” When these words flash on the back wall of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, they are a biting reminder that the U.S. recently failed to qualify for the next World Cup, and in ignominious fashion at that.
There are many possible reasons for the American men’s enduring mediocrity in soccer. But Marc Bamuthi Joseph of the Living Word Project, who wrote “/peh-LO-tah/” and leads the ensemble of five, reaches for his old political-science textbook: The sport is fundamentally a collective effort, so a team is only as good as its weakest member.
This does not compute for Americans, who have a thing for capitalism and “lack the intuition to aim for egalitarianism,” the performer Traci Tolmaire explains. “We suck at soccer where everybody shares or we all lose.”
This collision of sports and Milton Friedman may give you an inkling that “/peh-LO-tah/” (the pronunciation for “pelota,” Spanish for “ball”) has more on its mind than a mere ode to scoring goals — though we do see stellar examples on video, along with less inspiring images, such as Zinedine Zidane’s infamous 2006 head butt. For Mr. Joseph, who has been a devoted fan and amateur player since his early childhood in Queens, life is soccer and soccer is life.
In his case, life as a black man, with all that entails in the United States: Those clips of laser-guided passes and Lionel Messi exploits? They are often juxtaposed with images from 1960s Civil Rights protests, and tellingly — loftily, perhaps — the show is subtitled “a fútbol framed freedom suite.” (The prolific Mr. Joseph recently collaborated on the opera “We Shall Not Be Moved,” about the police’s bombing of a West Philadelphia house that was home to a group of black separatists in 1985.)