The Old Globe’s ‘King James’ a rich demonstration of friendship and feelings

Matt and Shawn have a chat in the wine bar, wearing Cavaliers fan gear.

Caleb Foote and Joshua Echebiri in King James. Photo by Rich Soublet II.

King James, the newest Globe production, is enjoying a one week extension in its occupancy of the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in the round, where it offers a glimpse into the full range of very real feelings navigated by a duo of Cavaliers fans as they become friends.

The production follows Shawn and Matt, two lonely young men living in Cleveland Heights, Ohio who meet during LeBron James’ rookie season in 2004. Matt has big dreams but hasn’t yet grown into the full mantle of adult responsibility. Discovering that trying to fund his dreams is difficult, he decides to sell his pair of Cavaliers tickets. When newly published writer Shawn arrives, cash in hand, they discover that, while landing on an agreed upon price is difficult, there might be something else that comes out of this negotiation. The play continues in four scenes, each coinciding with a subsequent key event from LeBron’s career: 2010, 2014, and 2016.

Matt and Shawn sit near the desk of the antique shop, talking.

Caleb Foote and Joshua Echebiri in King James. Photo by Rich Soublet II.

And though the play is named for and centered around the basketball legend, it’s really a story of friendship and of emotion as, throughout it, the two men find themselves picking their way through pride, shame, jealousy, resentment, righteous indignation, but also fulfillment, comfortability and trust.

The two actors both do a great job of bringing all of this to life. Matt, played by Caleb Foote, is socially awkward perpetually underperforming, and frustrated. Feeling that he can do more than society and his parents expect from him, he carries hope and stubbornness in turn. Foote is big in his characterization – Matt’s reactions are often just slightly over the top – but this reads well, since his character is generally more ostentatious and swings more widely emotionally.

Shawn, on the other hand, played by Joshua Echibiri, is a more stable character. Though he is lonely, he has resigned himself to that solo status. That said, he craves being able to check a childhood box: attaining the level of status that puts him in the stands at a Cavs game. For him, this is symbolic, as is his eventual pursuit of a job working as a television writer. Echibiri does a beautiful job of portraying Shawn’s level of stability but also, ultimately, his vulnerability.

Beautifully yet simply written, as the production continues, the characters navigate microaggressions and microinvalidations and moments of swallowing their pride as they squeeze their narratives through society’s boxes and expectations. This expression of the ways in which simple things and experiences can either bring us together or tear us apart is very poignant and powerful, and the director, Justin Emeka, and playwright Rajiv Joseph, do justice to this struggle in their portrayal of how hope and love can coexist with friction and heartache. We see this tenuousness in the way Matt and Shawn work to maintain their relationship and it hits home.

Matt and Shawn talk in the antique shop.

Caleb Foote and Joshua Echebiri in King James. Photo by Rich Soublet II.

The set, designed by Lawrence E. Moten III, is effective for the telling of a story that stretches across a wide range of years. Act I takes place in a wine bar, showing (rather than telling) a story of economic success that permeates the town coinciding with the residency of its basketball legend. Act II, on the other hand, navigates more painful realities as it shifts to Matt’s family’s specialty shop filled with a dusty trove of unique treasures. Details such as floral-motif stained glass, a range of suspended lanterns, and antique-laden cases enable the audience to escape into these locations, while script-named props such as an armadillo statue and a bar cart shaped like a globe help move the story along. The crew, led by production state manager Sam Allen, are efficient at executing these changes quickly and accurately.

Also delightful is the sound design for the production, created by Lindsay Jones, which tracks in just the right degree of nostalgia from the early 2000s and pairs it with audio clips from the events that define each era of James’ career. Jones’ efforts in overlaying clips and creating seamless transitions do not go unnoticed.

Matt and Shawn share a handshake in the wine bar.

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

Ultimately, King James tackles masculinity at its most vulnerable and shines a light on how we can find ways to move beyond our darkest moments and to exist in wholesome caring together. It is a vibrant story and an authentic one, much deserving of the extension it has been granted.

Audiences can catch King James at The Old Globe through April 7.

Read the digital program.

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