You don’t have to know the ins and outs of LeBron James’ glittering and much-storied career, or indeed know much about basketball, to get the most from Ravi Joseph’s play, King James (City Center, booking to June 18)—but it certainly helps. The laughs, groans and sighs of recognition at certain moments of this Steppenwolf/Center Theatre Group/Manhattan Theatre Club production are audibly those of fans and the knowledgeable.
The structure of this low-key play—titled using James’ nickname, set in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and directed by Kenny Leon—sketches a series of key moments, temporally divided into quarters, in the friendship of two male Cleveland Cavaliers fans, which echo key moments in James’ career in 2004, 2010, 2014, and 2016.
Shawn (Glenn Davis, actor, producer and artistic director of Steppenwolf) and Matt (Abbott Elementary’s Chris Perfetti, another Steppenwolf alum) first meet in the basement wine bar Matt works in in 2004, Shawn interrupting Matt’s game of one-on-one—against an imaginary opponent—with a piece of crumpled newspaper and a trash can.
Having seen an advertisement, Shawn wants to buy Matt’s season ticket package, and it comes down to money. What price to see James’ Rookie of the Year season? (Matt: “You seen him live yet? He’s insane.”) Matt utters the first of his proclamations about “the problem with America”—in this case, “Is it a good thing that the economic well-being of Cleveland hinges on the talent of a teenager from Akron? Is that good for America?”
The men talk some more in the bar, a nervous, jokey, casual friendship begins, but when Matt (a white guy of relative privilege) asks of Shawn’s schooling, “Were you on a scholarship or something?” we see an early harbinger of Shawn’s eventual identification of Matt’s racism—which Matt fiercely denies—that will precipitate a break in the friendship many years later.
Shawn is calm and centered, while Matt is ratty and nervy, yet who wants to open up: “The Cavs got me through my childhood too. Going to the games was like the best thing in my life when I was a kid. It was the only time my Dad was ever nice to me.” Shawn is vaguely freaked out by this early confessional; he just wants the tickets.
Yet more detail of their lives unspool and reveal themselves. Shawn is a wannabe writer whose short story about a mouse Matt can’t seem to believe doesn’t include a trip to a magical land. What’s its title, he asks Shawn? “The Mouse,” Shawn replies. After a perfect beat, Matt asks, “Because of the mouse?” We next see the men in 2010, now firmer friends, dejected after James has announced he is heading to play for the Miami Heat, when Shawn tells Matt he will soon be leaving Cleveland too in service of his own ambitions.
All the play’s themes of privilege, ambition, and vulnerability are sown in the first section. This is a quiet play about heterosexual men’s friendship and intimacy, and how deep—or how shallow—those gruffly forged bonds are. You find yourselves reading between all the lines about LeBron James and basketball to decode what the men not only mean to each other, but what they are willing to express about what they mean to each other. If King James feels a little too tentative and rambling, both Davis and Perfetti are excellent bringing as much sharpness and focus to its set-pieces, speaking their feelings about the world and each other through sport nerdery and rumbling trash talk.
The second half of the play is set in Matt’s parents’ attractively cluttered shop of “antique furniture and random tchotchkes,” as Matt calls it. “Like if you want a globe with a bar in it? They have that.” In 2014, the men meet again on the day James announces he is returning to Cleveland, just as the men’s lives are traveling in different directions. Matt’s anger at James for treating Cleveland as a whim leads him to say he should “know his place.” Shawn calls out not just the bigotry he feels belies that remark, but also Matt feeling the same about him, another Black man not knowing his “place,” after he left Cleveland behind—and the control he feels Matt has lorded him over him by helping him out financially. As Shawn says, Matt seems stuck and resentful.
That Matt has no good response suggests Shawn is spot-on. Their lives are wildly different, as is the trajectory of what their futures seem to be. The play suggests the shared love of James and Cavs is a proxy bond for more than either would ever willingly admit too. (Not sexually or romantically it would seem, although relationships with women are only half-heartedly sketched.)
The play ends in 2016, the day of the Cavs’ downtown championship parade. It feels a rickety dramatic denouement. The 2014 argument rings so heartfelt and punchily cataclysmic it seems odd to see the men implausibly reunited again, without a significant interrogation or resolution of what was said. (Would Shawn really want to revive a friendship with a person he feels is a controlling racist?) But what finally brings them together is the love of the game. The last frozen image of the play—an echo of the first scene, a one-on-game now featuring two very real people—is of two men, both reaching ecstatically for the sky.
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