The world premiere play “King James” spotlights the work of two Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble members who loved basketball long before they loved theater.
Glenn Davis and Rajiv Joseph are part of an all-star creative team that includes Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon and actor Chris Perfetti of the ABC show “Abbott Elementary.”
One of two new artistic directors at Steppenwolf, Davis is a Chicago native and a lifelong Bulls fan. Playwright Rajiv Joseph grew up a Cavaliers fan in Cleveland. His 2010 play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” starred Robin Williams and Glenn Davis on Broadway and earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination.
WTTW News spoke with Glenn Davis and Rajiv Joseph before the tip-off of “King James.”
Q: Before we get to the play, talk about your favorite NBA team.
Glenn Davis: Rajiv and I have been sports fans all of our lives, and he’s from Cleveland, and I’m from Chicago. Being a fan of the Bulls of the ‘90s, that dynasty, I was a kid and watching Michael Jordan, had all the Jordan shoes, sang the “Be Like Mike” song. He was my hero growing up and I remember when I finally met him years later, it was like everything was moving in slow motion. So these figures, like Tom Brady or LeBron, that are larger-than-life, make such an imprint on our psyche that you can’t separate them from their celebrity. They’re obviously flawed individuals like the rest of us but to kids they’re infallible.
Rajiv Joseph: I’m a big Cavs fan. When I was growing up the Cavs were a good team – Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, Larry Nance Sr. And I loved that team and went to see them play all the time and of course that team, as good as they were, couldn’t get past a certain guy here in Chicago.
Q: This isn’t a show about the game of basketball exactly. What’s it about?
Rajiv Joseph: It’s a show about a lot of things. I put friendship and camaraderie at the top. I think it’s also about being a fan and what that means. It’s about the way that certain people, especially young men, use sports as a language to communicate things that are deeper than just what they’re talking about. It’s sort of a code for different emotions and complicated feelings that maybe you struggle to talk about on a normal everyday basis, but in arguing about basketball, football, baseball, LeBron James, Tom Brady, Michael Jordan, you can start to communicate something deeper.
Glenn Davis: When he came up with the idea, when he first pitched it to me and told me what it was going to look like I was like, wow, this is the perfect scenario where we get to take our sports lives and fandom and marry it with our spiritual lives, which is the theater, and make those two come into conversation with one another.
Video: Steppenwolf Theatre’s “King James” was written by Rajiv Joseph and stars Glenn Davis and Chris Perfetti. (Credit Steppenwolf Theatre)
Q: And just to be clear, this is a show with two characters — and neither of them is LeBron James.
Rajiv Joseph: Right, LeBron James is not a character in the play. He is a specter in the play, a sort of unseen force that connects these two young men, and he is the source of their fascination and sometimes disdain over the course of their friendship over the years.
Glenn Davis: The question I get most is “Hey, are you playing LeBron?’ I’m 5’ 9”, Lebron is 6’ 9”, so no. LeBron is what I call the monster in the closet, like he’s always present, sort of omnipresent, and he is transfixed in the minds of Cleveland fans and people of the northeast Ohio. So he’s always there, but he’s not in fact a character in the play.
Q: How is it that a star athlete can captivate a city?
Rajiv: What LeBron brought to the city of Cleveland was excitement, economic power, and a real spotlight to the city when he was there and then when he came back. And I think for small markets like Cleveland it’s even more important. I think that cities like Chicago, New York and LA, they can survive without their sports icons because they have so much else going on [LAUGHS] and I think that in smaller markets, to have a caliber of athlete like LeBron, it really changes the climate there.
Glenn: LeBron being the favored son who comes back and wins this championship for Cleveland means something very different than it meant for me as a Bulls fans growing up and Jordan and Pippen and the other players win six, right? LeBron looms large, larger than if he’d done it with any other city. For a Cleveland fan, it’s everything.
Q: Rajiv, how else is the game of basketball reflected in your play?
Rajiv: It takes place over 15 years of these young men’s life with each scene being one quarter of that, like the four quarters of a game, and so part of my ambition in the play was to reflect the style and structure and pageantry of an NBA game, going there live, which is its own form of theater, where you have lights and music and dancing and of course the athletic prowess upon the court. 45.11
Q: Talk about your collaboration and friendship.
Rajiv: I wrote this part for Glenn Davis. When LeBron came into my life, I was just starting out my career. When I met Glenn, he and I were rushing out of tech rehearsals for our first play to go see LeBron in the playoffs, and that was 15 years ago.
Glenn: Rajiv and I have a longstanding friendship and artistic collaboration. We worked together on a play called “Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo back in 2009, then we revisited it in 2010 and took it to Broadway with Robin Williams in 2011. It’s been one of the great artistic adventures of my life to have worked with Rajiv.
“King James” at Steppenwolf Theatre runs through April 10.