I’ve always been ambivalent about the use of land acknowledgements in the arts sector, but as I am not of Indigenous descent, I can’t speak for Indigenous opinions on the matter. At the world premiere of King James at Steppenwolf, the audience was treated to not only a land acknowledgement, but also to what I like to call a slave acknowledgement, which educated the audience on the fact that enslaved people built this country, and that there might be the descendants of formerly enslaved people in the audience RIGHT NOW! The acknowledgement wrapped up with some oblique sentiment about the Power of Theater Bringing Us All Together or something—I’m paraphrasing here—but the bottom line is that it was HIGHLY UNCOMFORTABLE. It kind of reminded me of the time in college when a Christian dude invited me, his atheist friend, to his church, and the pastor asked the audience if anyone wanted to give their life to Jesus, and everyone turned around and stared at me.
Anyway, I have tickets to see Mike Birbiglia in a few months, so I’m looking forward to being reminded of my enslaved ancestors at the top of a comedy show! #Inclusion
Through 4/10: Tue-Fri 8 PM, Sat-Sun 3 and 8 PM; also Wed 3/30 and 4/6, 2:30 PM; Sun 4/3 and 4/10, 3 PM only, Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650, steppenwolf.org, $20-$88.
After the slave acknowledgement, the awesome DJ in the rafters played a slow jam R&B version of the entire “Star-Spangled Banner,” and that’s how the play began. Written by Steppenwolf ensemble member Rajiv Joseph, and directed by Kenny Leon, King James follows the story of two young men who bond over their shared love of basketball—of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, to be precise. Steppenwolf co-artistic director Glenn Davis plays Shawn, an aspiring writer seeking to purchase season tickets to the Cavs. Chris Perfetti (currently starring in ABC’s Abbott Elementary) plays Matt, a plucky entrepreneur who is desperate to sell his season tickets to make a quick buck. Both Davis and Perfetti are incredibly likable and engaging actors, sharing an earnestly goofy spirit that makes them believable as awkward new friends with their whole lives ahead of them. Their playful banter gives the play a sitcom feeling—you could watch these two razz each other all day long. The duo delivers truly excellent performances.
Die-hard basketball fans will find much to love, as LeBron’s career is the scaffolding for the story, and older casual basketball fans (like myself) will appreciate the walk down memory lane through the glory years of the sport. Folks who aren’t so interested, prepare yourself—there’s a lot of sportsball. The night I attended, there was a small contingent of folks from Cleveland who cheered enthusiastically at several deep-cut hometown references, and shared that scenic designer Todd Rosenthal had peppered the set with authentic Cleveland artifacts. This is an “I see what you did there” kind of show, complete with the requisite jokes about flip phones and the early days of the Internet. Costume designer Samantha C. Jones does a killer job capturing the subtleties of the era—I immediately chuckled at the burgundy oversized dress shirt that was wearing Matt in the very first scene, the official uniform of dudebros everywhere in the early aughts.
The core of the story is a simple one, tracking the growth of two men through young adult maturity. Writer Joseph does an excellent job at exploring the intimacy gulf that can exist between those who fancy themselves close friends—in this instance, the gulf is constructed of masculinity, class, and race. The strength of the story is the beautiful gentle blooming of their personalities and closeness, resulting in a subtly poignant metaphor of the acute pain of loving someone or something that doesn’t, won’t, or can’t love you back in the same way. This is a simple, quietly devastating story that leaves you wanting more, setting up connections and conflicts but unfortunately not following through on the most interesting ones. For example, there is a really juicy subplot involving Shawn’s growing relationship with Matt’s family (as Matt grows further estranged) that is abandoned for a weak act three climax that feels like retread ground from act one, and is frankly a bit shoehorned in.
Without giving away too much, King James wraps up in a simplistic rom-comish saccharine bow that feels like wish fulfillment for certain audiences. For other audiences, well, it feels . . . insufficient . . . like . . . an empty acknowledgement of some kind. Not satisfying, not revelatory, not helpful, not for us, perhaps well-intentioned, but definitely awkward. Sooooooo incredibly awkward.
But hey, at least it’s something!