I don't give a hoot about sports, but the world premiere of “King James” in Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre is surprisingly moving — at least in the second half of the fourth quarter.
Cleveland native Rajiv Joseph's two-hour play charts the course of an unlikely friendship between two very different men over 12 years with humor and compassion, exploring how they communicate over their mutual love of sports, particularly the Cleveland Cavaliers, but repeatedly fail to express their real feelings.
The basketball great who ignites their passions, bringing them together but then pulling them apart, is “King” LeBron James. The play begins when James is in his rookie year with the Cavs and follows his career through his hotly disputed departure for the Miami Heat and then his return to the Cavs, helping them win a world championship in 2016, the first professional championship in more than 50 years for the city.
Matt (Chris Perfetti of ABC’s “Abbott Elementary”), who is white, and Shawn (Glenn Davis, Steppenwolf's co-artistic director), who is Black, first meet at La Cave Du Vin, the Cleveland wine bar where Matt works. He's selling a pair of tickets for the remaining 19 games of the Cavs season because he needs the money, and his father, with whom he's gone to games since childhood, can no longer attend. Shawn comes to buy them because he finally has some money to go to a game, something he's never done before.
As they haggle over price — Matt wants $6.500, Shawn says he only has $2,000 — we realize they have more in common than meets the eye. Both are in their twenties, lonely, misfits and working hard to hold it together, though Shawn seems better educated and more likely to succeed. The scene, aka the first quarter, ends with Shawn getting the tickets and Matt asking who he's going to take with him since he has a pair.
By the second quarter, they are best friends, so much so that Shawn touchingly gets along better with Matt's parents than Matt does. Their arguments remain fairly amicable — who is greater: LeBron or Michael Jordan? — until LeBron's defection to the Miami Heat causes a rift that's a microcosm of larger questions about race, class and loyalty. LeBron's return to the Cavs and the championship win heal some wounds but not all. What triggers a reconciliation is the recognition that the friendship is what matters, not sports, and the sweet way that's revealed.
In lesser hands, “King James” could be a slog, but Perfetti and Davis give such complicated, nuanced, funny performances under Kenny Leon's sensitive direction that it's impossible not to root for them.
Todd Rosenthal's rotating scenic design — with La Cave Du Vin on one side and Matt's parents' curio shop on the other — is a technical highlight, but the way Lee Fiskness' lighting scans the audience to make us feel like we’re at a stadium is clever. A shout out, too, to DJ Khloe Janel, doing her thing from a balcony box, even though she isn't credited in the program.,
Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Through April 10. $20 - $88. 312-335-1650, steppenwolf.org
There are two main reasons to see Definition Theatre's Chicago premiere of “White,” which is being staged in partnership with Steppenwolf Theatre Company's LookOut Series.
James Ijames' often hilarious 90-minute play is a trenchant, multilayered send-up of the art world, raising all sorts of questions about diversity, equity and inclusion, not to mention white privilege, appropriation and who gets to decide what is and is not good art and on what basis. There's also a stellar performance from Kierra Bunch in multiple roles.
The satire turns on a cleverly charged premise. Jane (Carley Cornelius), the pretentious new curator at the prestigious Parnell Museum, decides to depart from her predecessors' penchant for exhibitions of works by white male artists by mounting a “new America” show exclusively of BIPOC artists, even though she is white. This upsets her white painter friend Gus (Niko Kourtis), who desperately wants to be included and claims that the fact he's gay distinguishes him from the “white dudes” she's excluding. He's doubly hurt because she thinks his work is excellent — even though it's all white paint on white canvases representing, he says, his grappling with his own whiteness.
In an effort to get into the show, Gus recruits Vanessa (Bunch), an actor friend of his boyfriend Tanner (Jonathan Allsop), and though she's reluctant at first, together they create Balkonae, a Black female artist who presents Gus's painting as her own — of white cotton on a plantation. Not surprisingly, the ruse gets out of hand. As Jane laps it up, Balconae becomes increasingly outrageous, calling her style “black bitch expressionism,” aggressively claiming credit for the work and generally leaving the distraught Gus in the dust.
But there are several more twists I won't reveal that make us ponder what's really going on here. One little clue: Vanessa's real name, she tells us early on, is not Vanessa; it's Balconae because her mother liked unusual multisyllabic names. Bunch is a force to be reckoned with as both personas, and also as St. Diana (as in Ross), who Gus claims is his inner Black diva, “because every gay man has one.” Rea Brown's costumes, particularly for Balconae, are a hoot.
Unfortunately, under Ericka Ratcliff's heavy-handed direction, the rest of the cast overacts egregiously, becoming caricatures who are less funny than they would be if they played it straight and sincerely. The alley staging doesn't serve the play all that well, as the action tends to ping-pong from one end of the room to the other.
On the plus side, Jane's early slide show (scenic design and projections by Yeaji Kim) of “white dudes” paintings the museum has exhibited is a delightful take on what's to come: They are all very famous paintings by renowned artists, tweaked slightly and renamed. What looks like “The Scream” is attributed to “Schiele,” Jane tells us, adding “not Egon,” in one of James' erudite in-jokes.
Definition Theatre at Steppenwolf 1700 Theater, 1700 N. Halsted St. Through April 10. $20 - $40. steppenwolf.org