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

King James

Old Globe Theatre, San Diego

Written by:
Josh Baxt
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King James, the Old Globe’s new buddy comedy, may be the most confident production I have ever seen. Though, superficially about basketball, the play doesn’t care how you feel about the sport. Honestly, five minutes in, immersed in the show’s humor and uninhibited joy, you won’t care either.

Set in Cleveland, beginning in 2004, Shawn (Joshua Echebiri) and Matt (Caleb Foote) meet at the wine bar where Matt works. Hard-up for money, Matt is selling his parents’ Cavaliers season tickets, and he wants a lot. It’s Lebron James’ rookie season and basketball fever is overtaking the city, which hasn’t had a championship team in decades. Could it happen?

Matt and Shawn are major contrasts. Matt is uninhibited and wears his heart (and whatever he’s thinking at the moment) on his sleeve. Shawn is more controlled and thoughtful. He’s thinking of consequences but also has moments of unrestrained delight. They’re so different, but they share a love of the Cavs, and they both treat life like it’s a hot burner they will be forced to touch again.

Fast forward six years and Lebron has reached free agency and taken his talents to Miami. The betrayal is palpable, but Matt takes it better. It’s just the other shoe dropping. This pattern continues throughout the show. Much of their emotional lives is consumed by Lebron – his basketball prowess, how he ranks against Michael Jordan, the city where he’s currently playing.

When they’re not talking about basketball, Matt and Shawn are sharing their dreams. Matt wants to own a club; Shawn wants to be a writer. Basketball is just the vernacular they use to express themselves. The friendship seems so real, you want to believe the two actors are buddies off-stage. Even when they argue – and they argue a lot – there’s a sense of deep kinship.

Everything about this show works, and credit Emeka for keeping this train rolling. Echebiri and Foote look like they’ve been performing King James for months or even years. It’s like a seminar in on-stage chemistry. Foote is particularly gifted. In lesser hands, Matt could easily come off as just another whiny, discontented bro. Foote turns him into that annoying/endearing friend you just like having around.

The comic timing is nearly perfect, and the laughs just keep coming. Every time the story veers into deep thoughts, Matt delivers some wild and unexpected non sequitur to bring us back. Still, the show is deeper than it first appears, touching on race, class, privilege, loyalty and transparent honesty.

Sports are joy and pain, endless fodder for conversation and the continuous spark for the world’s most pointless arguments. King James somehow captures that all-consuming passion and transmutes it into a funny and poignant story. See it twice.

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