Or: What Chicago Theatre Could be…

There I stand: Through clapping, breath held, frozen in a state of wonder.

Moments pass.

Finally, I turn to my friend and yell, “that! was a musical!” It is simultaneously the most reductive and profound statement that I can make. We spend the next three hours, two performers, two creators, two professional artists, musing and remixing thoughts on the piece itself, the state of Chicago theatre, and our personal artistic journeys. There is no goal in sight. No end to the conversation. Just two people, affected by a piece of art, passing back and forth their unfinished, raw responses. It is necessary. It is beautiful. It was /peh-LO-tah/.

/peh-LO-tah/ is billed as a “multi-disciplinary performance work.” In description, the website weaves a web of connotations that would pique the interests of any art connoisseur. But, for me, it is simple: /peh-LO-tah/ is a reflection of my life on stage told through the lens of another’s story. Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s ability to weave his own history, his personal journey with soccer, into a universal question of what it means to be American, while maintaining a specificity of Black and immigrant experiences, is masterful. It’s no wonder he’s a MacArthur Fellow.

It is a musical. It fits the definition of the art form regardless of historical context or intended medium. There is a book, choreography, and song. Actors perform roles. There is a narrative arc. But to reduce it to that is to strip the personality and swagger it brought to the stage. It is what musicals could be if we stopped dwelling on a form and function born out of times of exclusion while attempting to represent the present universal. It is a musical…or, at least, what I wish musicals would become.

If I sound reverent, it is because I am. There is a power in this performance that I will, from now on, always find myself reaching for. Notions, contained within, of passing the ball and eschewing the star in favor of the team are remastered versions of philosophies I have tried to live my entire adult life by. The obvious influence of each cast member on creating the whole spoke to a level of collaboration all of Chicago’s theatrical community claims to aspire to. It gave me hope that there is an art out there, undeniably born of the contemporary, that honors the history and the legendary, while embracing a boy like me. For the first time, in a long time, I felt seen.

But, this isn’t a review. It is a call to action for the community to see a future that embraces the present without erasing the past. What is a legacy if we never grow from it? Art should be a game of telephone, where we pass idea, form, function, and style on through the ages ever changing to reflect the echoes of our times. The Carousel of today can not be another production of Carousel. What comes next? Who is today’s barker and what is their story? What is the contemporary dance form? When does Tap become Krump? As the cast of /peh-LO-tah/ flowed from Jazz, to African, to Bossa Nova, to Contemporary, to Breaking, to Tap, to Stepping they showed a map of America from where it has been to where it is — We are a nation made up of so many moving parts, why don’t our stages reflect that?

I wish I could have brought Chicago’s entire theatrical community to /peh-LO-tah/. I wish, I hope, we can find a way to honor our legacies by confronting our realities. Art that deifies the achievements of the past without reflecting the realities of today and questioning the possibilities of the future is doomed to stagnation. Look for the remix. Incubate the future.

Learn to pass the ball.