King James is a Tender and Creative Play

That -at a glace- Weaves Basketball with Theatre 

A Blog View by Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti

Caleb Foote as Matt and Joshua Echebiri as Shawn in King James, 2024. Photo by Rich Soublet II.

I think plays in the round with an intimate setting like the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre at The Old Globe, have a different vibe. It was not the exception for their latest production King James, written by Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph. People that are basketball fans, and especially, Laker fans, immediately gravitate towards the title. Me, I am a basketball spectator from time to time but the truth is I know spic about the sport so, aside from the artwork, I did not grasp immediately that it was a play about or with basketball -at a glance-, because what James really touches upon, is friendship and life. 

The plot is set in Cleveland on the course of a bromance between wine bar owner Matt (Caleb Foote) and Shawn (Joshua Echebiri). In the beginning, they do not know each other. Matt has season tickets to the Cleveland Cavaliers, (the basketball team where LeBron James started playing professionally) that he needs to sell quick so he can pay off some debt. After a heated price negotiation and acquaintance catch-up, Shawn buys the tickets. We then see time passing showing audiences the different stages in each of their lives along with their now tight friendship that was born through the love of basketball. And just like life, sometimes we are up, sometimes we are not, and sometimes we are not as close as we used to be.

Aside from a few references that in this case are very inside -basketball-, I like what Joseph did weaving the sport in with theatre attracting different audiences to come see the play. I also liked the purity in Matt and Shawn's friendship and how accurate the depiction of a tight friendship can be throughout the years passing weathering life's different stages. What I kind of understood but gave me a sort of an ick at the same time, was the racial tint with Matt being white and better off (in most of the story) and Shawn being Black and sort of depending on his friend. It is obvious that Rajiv Joseph aims with a lens that goes beyond race and have the story only be about true friendship but... sometimes the context and the development of it, again, gave me a bit of an ick... 

Caleb Foote as Matt and Joshua Echebiri as Shawn in King James, 2024. Photo by Rich Soublet II.

The core team with the playwright, director, and actors is coincidentally another bromance where Justin Emeka had a good trace using the round space and really having that disappear in dimension as the story is immersive and the focus is strictly on Caleb and Joshua. Another aspect that is worth mentioning is that as time passes and they age, the slight difference in attitude is palpable. Sarita Fellows's costume design accentuated this with good attention to detail from the shirts to the jerseys, to the shoes and the sneakers. I enjoyed Foote's performance on Hand to God at the now-defunct SD Rep in 2017 which earned him a Craig Noel Award for Outstanding Lead Performance in a Play. He was charming and dynamic as I had seen him last yet, in this performance I found him to be a little extra accentuating mannerisms a little too much. Joshua was also charming and matched well with his costar. 

The play is around two hours with an intermission and I believe it had the strength to easily be a shorter one-act. Lawrence E. Moten III's set design plays well with the space bringing the different places in the story like Matt's wine bar and the antique store his parents own (Armand's). There is a reference in the script about the wine bar being formerly a church asking to look up at the stained glass and Moten recreated that visual well complimented by Abigail Hoke-Brady's lighting design that contoured each scene accordingly and  Lindsay Jones's sound design that also created a visual for audiences to really imagine the plays, the games, and the passion that true basketball fandom brings. 

All in all, I thought King James was a very creative and tender play that with a little more rounding could land better and become something great.

Check it out for yourself! King James is currently playing until April 7th.

There will be a Post Show Forum on Tuesday, March 26, and an Open-Caption Performance on Saturday, March 30 at 2:00 p.m. 

For information on ticket prices and performance times please click here. 

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