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. Continue reading “King James Scores Big Like Lebron at Steppenwolf Theatre”
Many Americans sitting in the audience for The Great Leap may have a basic knowledge of what happened at Tiananmen Square. Some of them watched the coverage on their televisions. Younger generations have read about the events in their textbooks. Some caught stories about that historic event during its 30th anniversary earlier this year. Almost all Americans have some working understanding, all with the privilege of distance. Lauren Yee closes that distance with her play The Great Leap, where an American college basketball team travels to Beijing for a “friendship” game when relations between the two nations are anything but friendly. The game is scheduled for June 3, 1989, one day before the Tiananmen Square protests come to a violent end. Director Jesca Prudencio taps into the inherent tension of time and place with the kind of dramatic spectacle typically reserved for the stadium. At its heart, The Great Leap is a play about collision: sports and theatre, US and China, protesters and government. The court in Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre is the battlefield and the end of this collision course. Continue reading “‘The Great Leap’ at Steppenwolf Theatre is a Collision of Passion, Sports, and Protest”
Sibling rivalry and resentment is the golden thread that runs through Sam Shepard’s classic play, True West. What begins as a standard tale of bickering between the Golden Child and the Black Sheep quickly takes a hard left turn when we realize that this Black Sheep may be mentally disturbed and harboring violent tendencies. Namir Smallwood plays an arrestingly intense Lee, toggling with ease between a playful and jovial energy and a cold, detached dominance without a moment’s notice. His presence as an aloof angry drunk drives this play, bringing a kinetic element of fear and excitement to an otherwise pedestrian moment. Breaking away from the tenor of Malkovich’s intense performance in the 1984 film, Smallwood’s portrayal of the grifter is still creepy but also somewhat charming and endearing, which helps contextualize why his brother simply wouldn’t call the police on sight. Continue reading “‘True West’ at Steppenwolf Honors the Classic and Shows Shepard a New Frontier”