Pulitzer finalist Rajiv Joseph's King James is in the midst of its Off-Broadway premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club, but don't let the name fool you; this is no LeBron James biography.
Taking place over a period of 14 years, the play traces the bond between two friends, Shawn and Matt, as they debate the future legacy of James as one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Through sport the pair are able to express their emotions toward one another as their relationship ebbs and flows. Structured in four extended scenes (like the four quarters of a basketball game), King James is, at its core, a tribute to friendship.
"Rajiv Joseph is one of my closest friends and collaborators, and a brilliant mind," shares Glenn Davis, who plays Shawn in the two hander. "Years ago, Rajiv and I were doing this play called Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, and all we did was talk about basketball between rehearsal. When I became artistic director at Steppenwolf, I commissioned him to write this play; Rajiv knew my voice, he knows my skill set, it just fit like a glove right away."
"I knew that I wanted to write it for Glenn." Joseph smiles at Davis across the room. "Glenn has a particular skill set as an actor that I adore. The way that he and I speak about basketball, I always find deeply enjoyable. I wanted to kind of translate some of that into a dramatic form... there are some young men in this country who have a hard time expressing their emotions to one another, but they're able to do that through the language of sports. I wanted to write a play that explores that."
Male friendship, and the ways in which sports can provide a center around which men can gather, is at the center of King James. "It's amazing how it affected Northeast Ohio, when LeBron James left the first time to go to play for Miami, and how it affected the people who had held him up as a sort of homegrown godlike figure," Davis states. "Now we are bringing it here to Manhattan, in the same season that LeBron becomes the all time leading scorer in the NBA, and the conversation about who's the GOAT, who's the greatest of all time is happening literally every day in every barber shop in America."
"Sports are really a vehicle here to talk about the condition of the world and the human spirit," shares Chris Perfetti, the other half of the friendship at the center of King James' story. "I play Matt, who is a bit of a loner and a die hard basketball fan. We meet him kind of at the end of his rope. He's really looking for somebody to walk in that door and change his life."
Change it does. Director Kenny Leon, who is a longtime Lakers fan (the current team for which LeBron James plays), sees beauty in the way King James charts the arc of a friendship over more than a decade of connection. "The love of my life is theatre, you know, but my second love is basketball. This is a play that explores the beauty of friendship—if we can only get to the fourth quarter of our relationships. Many of us get to the first quarter, second quarter, but we don't really get to that fourth quarter. There's beauty in that fourth quarter," Leon explains. "To do this play, at this time when everybody's so divisive, to do a play that will have you laughing and embracing the idea of friendship, and maybe get you on the phone after the play and call your brother who you haven't spoken to in years, or somebody you haven't seen in a while... that's worth watching even if you don't know basketball."
Hear more from the cast and creators in the video below:
King James is in the midst of its Off-Broadway premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club. Previews began May 2 ahead of a May 16 opening night. Performances continue through June 18. Leon directs the new play at New York City Center Stage I.
Davis (Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo) and Perfetti (Abbott Elementary) star as Shawn and Matt, respectively, alongside Khloe Janel as DJ. The play comes to New York following earlier runs at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago and Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles. Both Davis and Perfetti are reprising their performances from both of those world premiere engagements.
The production features scenic design by Todd Rosenthal, costume design by Samantha C. Jones, lighting design by Lee Fiskness, and sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. Casting is by JC Clementz, with additional casting by Caparelliotis Casting and Kelly Gillespie. Richard A. Hodge is production stage manager.