La Jolla Playhouse World Premiere of "Love All" is an Inspiring Piece that Chronicles Triumphs and Struggles of

Tennis Super Star Billie Jean King 

A Blog View by Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti

(L-R) Lenne Klingaman, Chilina Kennedy, Elena Hurst in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of LOVE ALL; photo by Rich Soublet.

I appreciate bio plays more than bio pictures or movies. I guess because the live and in-person aspect makes it feel more real. La Jolla Playhouse season opener Love All is one of those inspiring and educational pieces that chronicle important historic events. Based on Tennis superstar and founder of the WTA Billie Jean King and her rise in the sport during the sixties and seventies, Love All takes audiences through the revealing and tough decades of King's growth as an athlete (Chilina Kennedy), her sexuality, and marriage to Larry King (John Kroft), the struggle with equality amongst her fellow male players, and the bureaucratic system overall. 

The play written by Anna Deavere Smith and directed by Marc Bruni also features tennis legends of those eras whose lives intertwined with Billie Jean’s extraordinary career like Alice Marble (Bianca Amato), Althea Gibson (Rebecca S’Manga Frank), Margaret Court (Allison Spratt Pearce), Rosie Casals (Elena Hurst), Arthur Ashe (Justin Withers), sassy tennis player and magazine publisher Gladys Heldman (Nancy Lemenager). 

(l-r) Elena Hurst, Nancy Lemenager (seated), Bianca Amato, Chilina Kennedy and Allison Spratt Pearce in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of
LOVE ALL; photo by Rich Soublet.

The characterization of Chilina Kennedy as Billie Jean was spot on and her interpretation of the tennis star was strong and moving. Robert Brill's simple yet functioning and captivating set design simulates a stadium with a tennis court and the"cathedral" of tennis Wimbledon with an enormous (I believe to be) LED backdrop that projected S. Katy Tucker's projection designs that included seats as well as historic moments and simulated interviews with the pertinent grid so they would look "vintage" along with stairways that made a triangular angle that composed the frame nicely. Lighting design is always key and these types of pieces are more so because there are people in the audience who lived through these interviews and historic events. The lighting accentuates those moments that pop as well as the segways and Jiyoun Chang did a wonderful crisp job as did Darron L. West with the sound adapting the tennis ball bounces, the audience clamoring, and of course the racquet hits. Again, bio plays are challenging to produce as there is a record so, the theatricality has to have the aesthetic but also the realness and regarding the tennis uniforms and sponsored or endorsed outfits as well as the social gear were pretty loyal to the originals as Ann Hould-Ward's design showed. 

The whole company of actors is wonderful and the story flows nicely with doses of suspense and indignation too due to the unfairness and discrimination. There is also a nice wink to San Diego theatergoers or theatergoers in San Diego as during the performance and because of it happening during the same years, there is a mention of the protest by Black American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos that entailed raising their fists and being shoeless at the podium highlighting segregation, racism, and poverty during the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City, included in The Old Globe's The XIXth (The Nineteenth), produced earlier this year. Having these plays almost back to back amplifies the experience. 

(l-r) Rebecca S’Manga Frank, Bianca Amato and Chilina Kennedy in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere
production of LOVE ALL; photo by Rich Soublet.
Marc Bruni's direction is precise and the performances are tight as is Anna Deavere's chronicle, at least for someone who was not alive during those times and is learning and filling in the gaps, I appreciated it. However, I do not know how it is specified in the script but just as the catharsis of both the story and show is coming, there was an abrupt entrance of Billi Jean's current spouse Ilana Kloss (played by actor Bianca Amato) mentioning all of King's accomplishments both in tennis and in the sport's politics in benefit of women players. Although moving it was also confusing and roughly contrasted the way the stage showing clashes with reality. I believe it was not necessary, I do not know if it was due to it being opening night but, a smoother transition would have been better. 

Another thing that I am curious to see is the wonderful list of understudies: Summer Broyhill, Geno Carr, Spencer McCabe Hunsicker, Noah Keyishian, Mikaela Macias, Colby Muhammad, Ellen Nikbakht and Shana Wride. It is especially wonderful to see young talents that are killing it onstage like Mikaela Macias and anything that Shana Wride is in, I will see as she is a wonderful storyteller. 

All in all, the team effort is present and the production definitely deserves a chance. For performance dates and times please click here

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