Rajiv Joseph’s King James directed by Kenny Leon opened last night at Steppenwolf Theatre to a rocking auditorium. It’s my first time attending an opening under the new artistic directors Audrey Francis and Glenn Davis. It’s only my second time attending an opening of this scale for a production I haven’t worked on since the pandemic took root. I mention this because the theater had an air of a championship game, some dressed in their best jerseys, others their best faux furs. The audience came for an event, and King James delivered.
The play’s title is inspired by LeBron James, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, who just set a career record of 30,000 career points on March 13th, during opening night of this production. (!!!!)
As you step into the Downstairs theater, DJ and actress Khloe Janel is setting the vibe, spinning records in the box seats. The audience is rocking to 2000s hits preshow, singing Usher’s “Yeah!” to each other and waving at friends, invoking the spirit of attending a game more than a play. As the DJ winds down her set, the entirety of Marvin Gaye’s National Anthem washes over the audience (sound by Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen). Lights come up on Matt (Chris Perfetti, Abbott Elementary) alone in a wine bar, Le Cafe Du Vin. He is sitting on the counter, crumbling a piece of paper into a ball. He makes an aspirational shot at the trash can and misses. Shoot, miss, shoot, miss. Finally he brings the trash can on the counter to make the shot – as Shawn (Glenn Davis) enters.
Matt is looking to sell a season ticket package to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003, Lebron James’ rookie year. The package belonged to his parents but they no longer had use for it and gave it to him to clear up debts from a bad investment. Shawn is a lifelong fan but due to his dads work and his mom’s MS diagnosis, has never gone to a game in person. Matt refuses to sell it first for less than $5700 to ensure his financial bailout is successful. Shawn can only spend up to $3000. In this debate and negotiation we learn that Matt has made some bad investments and his parents think he is generally incompetent from his perspective.
Shawn hears this complaint a different way, that Matt’s parents may be realistic but that they are actually very supportive in comparison to his own. Shawn shares about the short story that he sold, giving him his first disposable income which he promised himself he would spend on good tickets to a game. A story about loneliness, and about how even at your lowest you have something to share. In the end, Shawn ends up in possession of the tickets, but no one to go with. Thus their bizarre friendship based on love of a game begins.
Sports, and other fandoms, have been known to bring together the strangest of friends. What I’ve described is only the first scene of the play, and we are exposed to very clear power dynamics with Shawn having premiere access to and knowledge of this glittering world of live sports. Joseph will soon upend the power dynamics of these friends, several times over. The effective costume design of Samantha C. Jones helped us track the ever shifting power balance of the friendship through time.
We travel through time with the duo marked by the milestones of LeBron‘s career. Though the time jumps can be startling at first, anchoring it in key career moments for LeBron, and the detail in props (not listed, but properties director on staff for Steppenwolf is Jenny DiLuciano), costumes, and a stunningly specific set designed by Todd Rosenthal really helps ground the audience. It is for this reason I am torn about the style of the transitions. It’s possible they take their time because we are literally time traveling, I just wonder what place the extended blackout has in the future of the American theater. Since there is only one per act however it doesn’t really slow the momentum enough to be of note. The transition that brings us back into act two though, is applause-worthy and some of Rosenthal’s finest spectacle work that I’ve witnessed..
Director Kenny Leon paces the show so we spend time in the complex and sometimes unspoken feelings of these two characters without getting lost in them, and there’s something so refreshing about getting to see men be human beings with emotion, passion, and fears together. There is theatricality to the piece, but also the type of showmanship and confidence in the work that comes with the LeBron-like status an artist like Leon has amongst his peers.
Fun fact / Creative Stats: Leon and LeBron both had incredible “rookie” years from 2003-2004 – Leon was of course working before this, but that year was career defining. In the ‘03-’04 season in theatre, Leon starred as Citizen Barlow in Gem of the Ocean at the Goodman Theatre, in Chicago, made his broadway debut directing the revival of A Raisin in the Sun with Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald, and P. Diddy, then directed Gem of the Ocean on Broadway in ‘04! He also co-founded his theatre company, Kenny Leon’s True Colors that same year. LeBron James graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2002, which predicted his basketball prowess and described him meeting Michael Jordan: “Remember that photograph of a teenaged Bill Clinton meeting JFK? Same vibe. Here, together, are His Airness and King James…” He went on to be a first round draft pick for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003, transforming the team and becoming the third player ever to average over 20 points per game as a rookie.
It’s a real joy to see newly appointed Artistic Director Glenn Davis return to the stage at Steppenwolf -I believe for the first time since Clare Barron’s You Got Older directed by Jonathan Berry in 2018, where he co-starred alongside Audrey Francis. Davis is well suited for the character of Shawn, a man who gives you the impression he’d rather not be seen and yet can’t avoid standing out. This doesn’t minimize Davis’ performance in any way, rather it makes you lean into his portrayal of Shawn. Davis as Shawn has a robust internal life that shows an untapped potential for great charisma: you never know what this character is going to do, say, or evolve into in a good way.
Chris Perfetti as Matt is wry and smart, giving some of the most naturalistic line readings that are still so theatrical, an attestation to his ability to transfer seamlessly between a hit TV show and the theatre. I look forward to seeing what roles he chooses to take on as his career grows. Both men have an air of mystery and even a little danger at times because we don’t know in this mismatched friendship who will hurt the other first. We have all had the experience of having a friend through a fandom or shared hobby that you accidentally talk to about the wrong thing. Sports, like theatre, is one of the things that can bring together opposing forces since the ancient times. It’s a form of escapism, but the real world has a funny way of crashing in.
Crash in it does, when Matt gains his first economic success and his newfound power begets a crucible point where the racial dynamics of this friendship become tense. I don’t want to spoil the mettle of the conversation, but what I appreciated about it was its simplicity. There is a motif throughout the text about what the ‘real problem is in America’ and it boils down to this conversation, this moment of racial tension and perceived betrayal between friends.
Rajiv Joseph is a person of color but he is neither black or white, but he took a smart approach by addressing the problem of race through the lens of class and power, which he historically has written so eloquently about. Joseph keeps the viewpoints of the characters in King James honest and to the point, with just enough said between them to feel the weight of the conflict. I commend him for not attempting to make this a race play, but rather treating race the way it behaves in real life: an undeniable fact of our lives, but not the center of our human experience. Ultimately their fandom neither allows them to transcend, nor ignore race.
I spoke to Joseph very briefly after the show and I joked that I related to this play because I was a fanatic about the Jonas Brothers as a kid. Not the same as basketball but I can still understand the bond. He said “I’m sure you made a lot of friends but I bet you made a lot of enemies too.” That just really struck me and cracked me up because he’s right – as much as we value our shared fanaticism over sports, or Beyonce, it is also the source of a lot of our division. There is something about fanaticism that expresses our principles, who is entitled to validate culture, the behavior we approve of, and the indulgences we don’t.
“There is no greater cultural crime a young girl can commit than loving pop music without apology.” This is the opening line of a Pitchfork article about how the fandom of teenage girls propels most artists to fame, but they only become “serious artists” when they outgrow that fan base.
When I was growing up, there were many arguments that putting down this brand of teenage fanaticism was akin to putting down women’s passion in general. Watching the way that Matt character was cut off from his emotional life and his friendships after giving up his fanaticism reinforces that idea for me. He felt too small to be entitled to a passion, in much the same way they try to make young women feel for having strong passion. This is not a message from the playwright, but it was how I found my way into the piece, and I think speaks to the potential of its universality.
King James reminds us the connection to the fanatic is also a connection to the fantastical, the idea that we are allowed to live out our dreams even vicariously. We all deserve a champion, even if that champion is flawed in the eyes of others. It’s good to remember: though it is premiering at Steppenwolf, and though it is a polished production, world premiere plays are still in development and can change from production to production. This really is a first-look at what could become a classic play. King James proves that Steppenwolf continues to be a major player when it comes to Chicago’s landscape of excellent world premiere plays.
King James by Steppenwolf ensemble member Rajiv Joseph, directed by Tony and Obie Award winner Kenny Leon, runs through April 10, 2022, in Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theater, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets start at $20 at steppenwolf.org or 312-335-1650. All photos credited to Michael Brosilow.
CAST: Glenn Davis (Shawn), Chris Perfetti (Matt), Austin Ryan Hunt (Matt Understudy), and Johnard Washington (Shawn Understudy)
PRODUCTION: Todd Rosenthal (Scenic Design), Samantha C. Jones (Costume Design), Lee Fiskness (Lighting Design), Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen (Sound Design), Sophiyaa Nayar (Associate Director), Polly Hubbard (Dramaturg), Gigi Buffington (Company Voice & Text Coach), Tom Pearl (Director of Production), Laura Glenn (Stage Management), Jaclynn Joslin (Assistant Stage Management) and JC Clementz, CSA (casting).
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