Entertainment

The LeBron James drama off the court: ‘King James,’ at long last, has its tipoff time

At this moment, all eyes are on Rajiv Joseph.

After spending most of the afternoon on the sidelines, he steps forward, coming face to face with two guys shooting hoops who just moments ago were engaged in a heated standoff. What happens next could change the scene dramatically, depending on what Joseph does.

“Before we go on,” he says, breaking the silence, “can we look at a couple of these lines?”

In the end, this basketball court drama will be resolved in the pages of the new play “King James,” which revolves around the invisible presence of Lakers star LeBron James and the evolution of two fans in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, over a span of 12 years. After what may have been the longest timeout in history, “King James” is back on the boards as the team enters into its third week of rehearsals.

While the play tracks James’ career path from his rookie season with the Cleveland Cavaliers to his controversial move to the Miami Heat, then his triumphant return to Ohio, “King James” mines more universal themes, using basketball as a lens through which to view race, the ups and downs of friendship and the power of sports to bring people together.

“King James” director Kenny Leon, center, blocks out a scene with actors Glenn Davis, left, and Chris Perfetti during rehearsal at Steppenwolf Theatre.

(Taylor Emrey Glascock / For The Times)

The world premiere co-production of “King James” was originally scheduled for May 2020 at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, followed by a run at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. But just as rehearsals were about to begin, the pandemic shut everything down. Two years later, the play is finally set to open in Chicago on Sunday, with the Taper run beginning June 1.

In the intervening time, “King James” was rewritten; the original director, Anna D. Shapiro, departed Steppenwolf; a new director, Tony Award-winner Kenny Leon, was brought in; Steppenwolf completed a $54-million expansion that includes a new 400-seat theater-in-the-round; and LeBron picked up his fourth NBA championship ring.

“To me, it’s great to put down a script for a long period of time and then come back to it. I do that, even without pandemics,” Joseph says later. “There’s actually this opportunistic place where you can engage with it as a stranger. It’s a nice place to be if you can afford it. And with ‘King James,’ I had a longer than usual time to do that.”

* * *

Kenny Leon’s 6-foot frame rises from his chair.

“What are you doing? Hold on.” He positions himself between actors Chris Perfetti and Glenn Davis, body checking the latter to demonstrate the physicality he wants to see in this one-on-one matchup. “I just want this to look more like basketball,” he says, half-laughing. Even if Leon wasn’t wearing a purple Lakers hoodie, it’s clear this guy has played a few pickup games in his time.

“Being a good director is like being a good coach,” Leon says the following morning, pulling down his mask to sip his Starbucks. “You help the young players and support the veterans, challenging them to go places they haven’t gone before. I see myself as the Phil Jackson of theater. Or Pat Riley.”

Leon is pumped. The night before he won an NAACP Image Award for directing the TV special “Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia.” This afternoon the actors will perform the play from start to finish for the first time. He’s ready to go.

Amid a makeshift set, director Kenny Leon directs a scene.

Leon directs another scene for “King James” in a rehearsal room at Steppenwolf.

(Taylor Emrey Glascock/For The Times)

Since winning a Tony Award for his 2014 production of “A Raisin in the Sun,” starring Denzel Washington, Leon has been in heavy demand not only for the stage, but for television, notably helming “Hairspray Live,” “The Wiz Live” and “Mahalia.” When he got the call for this play late last year, he thought he’d have to pass.

“It was like, ‘Let me read the script. I will talk to you as if my schedule has nothing to do with it. But I’m telling you ahead of time, I don’t think it’s possible,’” he recalls. “No, it’s impossible. But I’ve been told to always take the meeting.”

Then he read “King James.”

The story centers on two men — one Black, one white — who form an unlikely friendship because of their love for the game and for LeBron and who are able to express their emotions through the code of sports. It resonated with Leon.

It also helped that Leon has been a die-hard Lakers fan for the last 30 years. Yes, he was there, in floor seats two chairs down from LeBron, for the Lakers-Celtics game that reopened Staples Center after COVID restrictions were lifted. Yes, he’s stuck with the team even during losing seasons.

But on this snowy winter morning, an imagined basketball court will have to suffice.

“What the hell am I doing in Chicago in February?” Leon says, laughing. “It’s the writer, the theater companies involved, my love for basketball, my love for theater, my love for African American culture specifically, and my love for what America could be. You put all that together and that’s why you do ‘King James.’”

A director demonstrates a move, paired with an actor.

Director Kenny Leon, left, works through a scene with actor Glenn Davis.

(Taylor Emrey Glascock / For The Times)

Joseph and Glenn, who was named Steppenwolf’s co-artistic director with Audrey Francis last July, caught up with Leon in the midst of staging “The Tap Dance Kid” at Encores! in New York City. Next on his agenda was the world premiere of “Trading Places: The Musical” at Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. After that, two shows aiming for Broadway: a revival of Suzan Lori-Parks’ “Topdog /Underdog” and 90-year-old playwright Adrienne Kennedy’s “Ohio State Murders” with Audra McDonald.

Somehow, they made it work. Schedules were adjusted, dates were shifted, staff was added, and Leon signed on.

“The universe made this happen,” he says. “This was supposed to happen. This was the perfect match.”

Bringing in a new director a few months before the start of rehearsal meant starting over with a new vision. But Leon made sure there was a smooth transition.

“How we got here is not important,” he says. “It’s like it felt right from the beginning. It continues to feel right. There’s a mutual respect in the room.”

* * *

Perfetti and Glenn have just finished their first run-through of the play. Like a basketball game, “King James” is divided into four quarters, each like a standalone play. And like athletes on the court, these two actors are working at high intensity throughout.

“I was just asking Chris, ‘When’s the last time you’ve done a two-person show?’ I haven’t done one since I was in drama school, and now I know why: They’re exhausting,” Davis says afterward. “We don’t have breaks where we’re not on stage; we’re on stage the whole time together.”

A playwright and director bump fists.

Playwright Rajiv Joseph, left, and director Kenny Leon bump fists during rehearsal.

(Taylor Emrey Glascock/For The Times)

“Each of the acts is emotionally a real roller coaster,” Perfetti says. “Plays, when they’re good, are about the worst and best days of people’s lives. So we have four ‘days’ where some really serious stuff goes down.”

Fans of the popular new ABC series “Abbott Elementary” will recognize Perfetti as the eager-to-fit-in teacher Jacob Hill. Although he has numerous TV and film credits to his name, Perfetti considers himself a stage actor first.

“On the whole, TV and film has always functioned as a way to sort of fund my theater habit,” he says. “Doing theater feels like coming home.”

This production will mark a return to the Taper stage for Davis, who starred in Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.” That play, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, premiered at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2009, followed by a run at the Taper in 2010, then a transfer to Broadway a year later with Robin Williams in the title role. During that time, Joseph and Davis bonded over theater and basketball.

“While in tech rehearsals for that production, Glenn and Brad Fleischer, another actor in it, and I would run out on our dinner breaks to watch LeBron play for the Cavs in the playoffs,” Joseph recalls. “The fact that LeBron has been playing all this time throughout my career is one of the reasons I ended up writing this play. He’s always been there.”

The playwright channeled his roller coaster of emotions as a longtime fan of James and his home team, the Cavaliers, into the play. “It’s about a friendship that circulates around sports and specifically LeBron. It seemed like a no-brainer to me,” says Joseph, who adds that the Laker star’s production company has read “King James,” so “the world of LeBron is aware of the play.”

A portrait of playwright Rajiv Joseph, standing in profile against a bank of windows.

Playwright Rajiv Joseph

(Taylor Emrey Glascock / For The Times)

Joseph wrote the part of Shawn in “King James” with Davis in mind. The actor has been with the play from the start, through all the workshops and readings, with each of the directors. He was living in L.A. in 2020 and had just flown to Chicago for rehearsals when the pandemic hit.

“My world looks entirely different now. So much of the racial unrest had not occurred yet in America, so I just feel different, as a Black man in America, than I did two years ago,” Davis says. “There’s so much shifting that’s gone on with this play, with us as individuals, with America, with how we have conversations about race and culture, and with LeBron himself.”

“King James” will “re-reopen” Steppenwolf, which came back in the fall with a production of Tracy Letts’ “Bug,” before shutting down again.

“Omicron happened, and we had to pivot,” Davis says, “So this will be our second reopening. Knock on wood we don’t have to do this again.”

* * *

When the pandemic broke out, Joseph happened to be in Cleveland, where he holed up with his parents after all three got sick with COVID. With “King James” on hold, Joseph was hit with another blow: His first musical, “Fly,” based on J.M. Barrie’s “Peter and Wendy” novel, was forced to close just days after opening at La Jolla Playhouse.

Instead of returning to Brooklyn, Joseph remained in Ohio. As the days turned into weeks, then months, he set aside “King James” and turned his attention to other projects.

Steppenwolf gave its canceled theater artists an opportunity to create works for its digital series. Joseph wrote, illustrated and directed an animated short called “Red Folder,” a childhood memory play narrated by actress and company member Carrie Coon.

“It was a very special project to me,” he says. “It was a real labor of love for, I think, everyone involved.”

Two men sit on the ground, leaning against a wall.

Playwright Rajiv Joseph, left, and director Kenny Leon will bring “King James” to the Mark Taper Forum in L.A., where performances are scheduled to begin June 1.

(Taylor Emrey Glascock / For The Times)

And after years away from his television writing days on “Nurse Jackie,” Joseph picked up three new series: “Extrapolations” and “Dear Edward” on Apple TV+, and “Immigrant” on Hulu.

As he waits for the end of the pandemic, Joseph is eager to launch back into his work with composer Richard Sherman on the book for a musical adaption of “The Jungle Book,” which is being developed as a touring production for Disney Theatricals. He’s also ready to jump back into his Peter Pan musical “Fly.”

And inspired by “Red Folder,” he’s started to write a new play, a more personal, slightly autobiographical work that is just beginning to take shape. “It’s so early on that even if I wanted to talk about it, I couldn’t talk about it,” he says, laughing.

But first there’s “King James.”

With a high-profile director, two Broadway veteran actors and two producing companies with a track record for transferring shows, it’s natural to wonder whether the production is aiming for Broadway. But that’s like asking LeBron about his plans for the championships before tipoff of the first playoff game.

“At this point,” Joseph demurs, “I can’t even think past this and L.A.”

‘King James’

At Steppenwolf in Chicago: In previews now. Opens March 13. Ends April 10.

At the Mark Taper Forum in L.A.: Previews begin June 1. Opening night is June 8. Scheduled to end July 3. Tickets are $30-$110 (subject to change). Running time is estimated at 2 hours (with one intermission). For information including COVID protocols: (213) 628-2772, www.centertheatregroup.org




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