Review: Friendship Is Like a Game of One-on-One in LeBron-Inspired King James
Rajiv Joseph's funny and moving new play is having its world premiere at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre.
The title of Rajiv Joseph's King James does refer to royalty, but it's not the British kind. The James here is the king we've come to know familiarly by his first name, LeBron — a basketball legend ever since he joined the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003. Even if you've never followed basketball, you know his name and status as court royalty, and you don't need to know much more than that going into Rajiv Joseph's slam dunk of a play, now running in a magnificent world-premiere production at Steppenwolf. Brilliantly directed by Kenny Leon, King James is hands-down one of the best new works you'll see this year.
It does help to have one important part of LeBron's career in mind, though: In 2010 he devastated fans of the Cavaliers when he decided to leave Cleveland to join the Miami Heat, and he instantly became almost as reviled by his native state as he was once loved. That decision provides the play's existential crisis for Joseph's memorable pair of characters whose devotion to the sport of basketball brings them together and nurtures their friendship. To be clear, LeBron never appears in the play, but the trajectory of his career shoots through the lives of these two young, lonely, basketball-loving men and their unlikely friendship.
Unlikely because they couldn't be more different in personality, except that they're both broke loners. Shawn (Glenn Davis) is full of ambition and ready to make big financial sacrifices to go to school, get a degree, and try to make it as a writer, but he spends much of his time alone. It's easier to see why Matt (Chris Perfetti) doesn't have many friends. Spoiled and judgmental, Matt is terrible at communicating with the women he dates, and he's quick to identify "the problem with America," whatever that happens to be for him at the moment.
Yet basketball (and the unloading of season tickets to pay off a debt) is what brings these two jeans-and-T-shirt-wearing guys together (Samatha C. Jones's costumes reflect the men's unpretentious fashion sensibilities). Over the course of about two hours, the play follows the men's friendship from 2004 to 2016, through LeBron's drafting, to his cataclysmic departure to Miami, to his eventual triumphant return to Cleveland. During those years, we see the men's lives become more entwined as their fortunes ebb and flow. Joseph, a master at buddy comedy, fills these scenes with belly-laugh banter, which Perfetti and Davis are pros at delivering, making the unusual alchemy of this friendship look like two guys talking smack while playing a friendly but competitive game of one-on-one.
The production does in fact make us feel as though we're watching a sporting event. From one of the boxes above, DJ Khloe Janel spins rap, pop, and R&B into the theater (with crisp sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen) in between scenes, while lighting designer Lee Fiskness moves spotlights across the audience and creates an atmosphere of anticipation. It's an inspired bit of theatrical craft that blends seamlessly with the rest of the show.
It's not until the second act though that we see fouls being called between the bosom buddies. Todd Rosenthal's outstanding, detailed revolving set takes us to from the wine bar where Shawn and Matt meet, to the used furniture and curiosity shop owned by Matt's parents. Till then, race (Matt is white and Shawn is Black) has seemed relatively incidental as far as these friends are concerned, but of course it never is. During a heated argument about LeBron, Matt makes a comment fraught with racist implications. Davis and Perfetti go hard in this scene as the theater fills with palpable tension (and audible audience reactions). Matt predictably becomes defensive, and Shawn refuses to spoon-feed yet one more white person the reason why the shit that just came out of his mouth is the real problem with America. "How?" shouts Shawn. "Explain it to me." "No," says Shawn in angry, defiant frustration. "I won't."
How these friends recover is the center of the extraordinary scene that follows. Without giving too much away, I'll say here that Davis's performance grabbed my heart with a single movement. Watching Shawn reach out for his missing friend at a basketball game was one of the most emotionally beautiful gestures I've ever seen an actor perform onstage. In the end, King James is less about basketball and racial misunderstandings than it is about what it takes for true friendships to endure. Our heroes will disappoint us, and our friends will let us down, but that doesn't mean the game's over. "Ball is life," as they say. We keep playing.