Playwright Ryan Oliveira uses soccer, eSports to explore complex questions of family & identity
The names of the characters in Ryan Oliveira’s new play, The Soccer Player in the Closet, will be very familiar to most Howler readers.
Cristiano. Bastian. Cobi.
And indeed, Oliveira’s footballers vie for glory and bury dramatic penalty shots, but on a much smaller stage. Their names were chosen with great intention. “I wanted to tether them to some sort of fame in the world,” Oliveira says. “We [as queer people] tie ourselves to fame as a means of survival.”
The Soccer Player in the Closet is a “magical seriocomedy” that tackles issues of family relationships, queerness and masculinity, success and failure. The story centers on Cristiano, a former top-ranked FIFA player who is, quite literally, haunting his apartment, replaying his past and playing the game with anyone who will join him, while his landlady and cousin try to exorcise his stench from the place.
Nothing Without A Company, the Chicago-based ensemble premiering Oliveira’s play, focuses on creating theatre in “non-traditional spaces and environments.” The setting, Cristiano’s apartment above a Chicago flower shop, is literally… an apartment above a Chicago flower shop. Audiences are dropped directly into his living room, jerseys and posters adorning the wall, feeling the tension of watching a particularly close FIFA match, smelling the burning sage and Febreze as the characters attempt to rid the place of his scent.
Oliveira says one of the germs for this play was watching his brother and his friends play FIFA, and being struck by the nature of their dialogue amongst each other, at times intense and sexual. In addition to an opportunity to use FIFA as a means of exploring relationship dynamics between men, eSports made for a particularly compelling lens given the increased visibility and presence of queer people and people of color in gaming. As Oliveira notes, the 2018 Game Awards winner for Best eSports Player was Dominique “SonicFox” McLean, a Black, gay furry.
“Queer folks can have, through gaming, a method of communing,” he says. “That also tackles their masculinity, their fandom for soccer in a space that would technically be safer for them than Russia or the Mineirão. There’s kind of a magical connection in all that.”
Oliveira first wrote The Soccer Player in the Closet in 2015, following a trip to visit family in Brazil for the first time in more than a decade. When Nothing Without A Company picked it up in 2018, he found himself not just changing character names and conducting more research into eSports communities, but introducing important themes. Following the elections of Donald Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Oliveira and his play dealt more with those themes of privilege and passing. The play evolved, as he puts it, “from less of a ghost play into more of a sibling play.”
For Oliveira, writing and putting on the play means navigating his own cultural proximities as a queer Brazilian-American, especially at an extremely fraught time for the rights and safety of LGBTQ Brazilians. Last month, Jean Wyllys, Brazil’s only openly gay legislator and a critic of Bolsonaro, resigned and left the country. “There’s this perception of Brazil as a lovely queer bastion, but an LGBT person dies there every single day,” Oliveira says. “And now we have Bolsonaro, who has made very clear his disdain for anybody LGBT. It’s become a much more dangerous place to express desire, particularly this notion of Brazil as this desirous, free place.”
Oliveira lays all of this out for his audience in The Soccer Player in the Closet, as Cristiano and the other characters struggle with toxic masculinity, violent homophobic abuse and unaccepting families and peers. But the love of the game he grew up with is also on display throughout the immersive set, from posters of the Selecão to Cristiano sporting a bootleg jersey of that other iconic Ronaldo.
Oliveira’s parents support Cruzeiro—“the best soccer team in Brazil, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise”—and his father played in a league when he first moved to the United States. Oliveira’s first indelible soccer memory was the 1994 World Cup final, where Brazil defeated Italy in a gut-clenching shootout. “My parents saved that game, they recorded that shit on VHS,” Oliveira says. “We would play it back, and my parents would switch back and forth between the English and Spanish announcement, to hear that excitement when Roberto Baggio misses the penalty and Brazil wins.”
Like many sports fans, Oliveira grapples with his relationship to soccer, in particular the institutional aspects, citing FIFA’s corruption and the dismantling of local infrastructure during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. When he does watch, he finds himself “rooting for underdogs.” “I’ll always root for Brazil and then get disappointed,” he says. “I root for Colombia and Chile. I rooted for Mexico [during the 2018 tournament].”
The world of The Soccer Player in the Closet is multilingual, with Spanish and Portuguese peppered throughout Oliveira’s characters’ words. In deciding how to use language, Oliveira took cues from his own life, including noting where he would slip into yelling in Portuguese while watching a soccer match.
“I always thought about using language as a shorthand, to impart something emotional, or as least playing with the notion of fetishization,” he says. In two different scenes, characters play with that power of fetishization and seduction—Cristiano uses Portuguese to deliberately try to seduce a love interest, while another character uses Spanish to make someone think they’re being seduced, “but actually she’s telling them to go eat a dick in many manifestations.”
Oliveira wants to spark a conversation with The Soccer Player in the Closet and approach difficult but necessary topics, like cultural toxic masculinity, but adds that he doesn’t want it to be just a “pontification play.” He wants to continue to actively engage with matters like machismo and the ways in which competition can be toxic (a running theme in the play) and hopes it will be a “curative experience” for audiences, not to mention creating space in the conversation for women and queer people.
“And queer people can fucking love sports too and don’t have to ascribe to a culture where it’s dangerous for us to be there,” he says. “There’s a cool scene where the women get in on the action too. I want us to have that, to have that ability to open [the game] up and make space.”
Nothing Without A Company’s world premiere production of Ryan Oliveira’s The Soccer Player in the Closet opens today and runs through March 17th at Christy Webber Landscapes, 2833 W. Chicago Avenue, in Chicago. For tickets and more information, visit their website.
Lindsay Eanet can be seen reading at live shows around Chicago and next to you at your favorite bar, skipping over all your songs on the jukebox. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Paste, SEASON, GrokNation and others. She is the host & producer of I’ll Be There for You, a new podcast about pop culture and coping. But enough about her, let’s talk about you.