GO: ‘King James’ at the Mark Taper Forum

Despite one cringe-worthy moment, “King James” at the Mark Taper Forum is an interesting though lightweight contemplation about the kind of friendships built around sports. One might think sports friendships are solely or predominately a male bonding territory, but the play is a good catalyst for re-thinking the different kinds of friendships we form. Although the dialogue touches on racism, “King James” isn’t a deep contemplation about race or anything in particular.

The titular “James” is LeBron James and the place is Cleveland. Playwright Rajiv Joseph was born and raised in Cleveland. He is half Asian Indian on his father’s side (French-German on his mother’s). After receiving his BA in creative Writing at the Miami University in Oxford, Ohio (1996), he joined the Peace Corps to serve three years in Senegal. He returned to the US to get his MA in Dramatic Writing from the New University’s Tisch School of Arts (2004).

LeBron James was also born in Ohio (Akron) and he was selected to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2003 NBA draft. In 2004, he was named NBA Rookie of the Year. He played with the Cavaliers until 2010, when he went to the Miami Heat. In 2014, he returned to the Cavaliers where he remained until 2018, when he left them for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Glenn Davis and Chris Perfetti in the world premiere production of “King James” at Center Theatre Group / Mark Taper Forum June 1 through July 3, 2022. Photo credit: Craig Schwartz Photography

The play begins while you’re being seated. A DJ is in a booth off-stage and to one-side of the audience playing some tunes to get the audience in the mood. You might want to dance in the aisles. I would have, but our aisle was a steep stairway. The DJ then makes announcements before the actors take to the stage.

The two-person play “King James” is about two men who meet by coincidence. Matt (Chris Perfetti) has listed some Cavalier tickets for sale; Shawn (Glenn Davis), who is African American,  is one of the potential purchasers.  Shawn comes into a bar that Matt is about to open. Matt determines that Shawn is a true fan and not a “bandwagon” fan. Beyond their devotion to the Cavaliers, both men yearn for something more. Matt’s family has a business, but he wants something different–this bar. Shawn also wants something outside of Cleveland. Matt will help him get there, but a turn of a phrase (“to know your place”) will come between them.

The actors are both affable and sincere. We like them, but this isn’t the kind of bromance that launches TV or movies. This is a low-key friendship, totally believable and with a lived-in feel at the end, thanks to Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon’s astute direction. Both sets by scenic designer Todd Rosenthal have a charming, inviting atmosphere that makes us feel a sense of loss at the end, bolstering our desire that these men sustain their friendship.

Chris Perfetti and Glenn Davis in the world premiere production of “King James” at Center Theatre Group / Mark Taper Forum June 1 through July 3, 2022.
Photo credit: Craig Schwartz Photography

You might be tempted to think this is a depiction of a superficial friendship, because sports isn’t real life. I might have agreed two decades ago, but I’ve revised my thoughts there.

While I once spent most weekends attending and reviewing stage productions (and had “theater friendships”), in decade before the pandemic shutdown, except for the summer, my weekends were filled with dog-related competitions. Instead of voting for awards, I was receiving ribbons. With the death of one dog and the aging out of another (He turns 12 on 18 June 2022),  I have retired from those activities, but I miss all those incidental friendships. These were people I saw monthly or even weekly at competitions and we’d about how to improve through diet or training. I missed them during the pandemic and I miss them now that I’ve retired my dog who earned his last AKC title last year (2021).  These are different than the Facebook and other social media friendships and the meeting for dinner friendships.  The message of “King James” seems to be that friendships come in m any forms and misunderstandings do as well.

Knowing Our Place

As with the previous “Blues for an Alabama Sky,” the Center Theatre Group hosted a Black Out performance (3 June 2022), but while one actor is “White” and the other is Black (and yes, the King James whom the title references is Black), the playwright is a different matter and I think it’s worth talking about. There are shades of White and what one considers White may differ. At one time, Italians weren’t considered White or White enough and the surname Perfetti sounds Italian. Just recently, Chris Rock called an Asian Indian American man White, or, at least, grouped him with other White people during this year’s Oscars. Compared to Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, fellow producers David Dinerstein, Robert Fyvolent and Joseph Patel might seem White to a Black person. However, Dinerstein and Fyvolent are both Jewish American and it was not so long ago that White nationalists were chanting “Jews will not replace us” on the news.  So they might not be White enough. Patel, angrily protested later. Patel is the first person of South Asian descent to win an Oscar in the documentary feature category.

South Asians exist somewhere in the middle ground between Black and White. Historically, they have been judged as not White enough (Thind. v. United States). Bhagat Singh Thind wanted to be recognized as racially different from East Asians and Southeast Asians who were legally discriminated against in federal naturalization laws. While Thind wanted to be considered White, other South Asians chose to join the Black community. The PBS series, “Asian Americans,” included the MIT scholar Vivek Bald, who wrote “Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America” (2013 by Harvard Press).

Asian Indians and other South Asians are sometimes considered Black by Black people and some Asian Indians have show concern about being mistaken for a Latino or a Black person.

There are South Asian Americans who refuse to be “raced.” Racialization is influenced by local factors or place.

Local racial dynamics often determine how all of these factors come into play in racialization processes. While individual skin color essentially remains constant across local settings–except for variations due to sunlight exposure or cosmetic modification–the social construction of race often varies with local contexts.175

Being Black or Collective Black (people like the Hmong Americans or dark-skinned Puerto Ricans who receive similar treatment to African Americans) is different from being African American, a term that excludes Asians who might be considered Black and the northern part of that same continent. That’s why it’s important to consider what is Black.  One recent president of the vilified Hollywood Foreign Press Association was an Asian Indian woman. Was she Black or not Black enough? Were there other members who were Collective Black? And, because they were not of African descent, were they not Black enough?

Playwright Rajiv Joseph is both White and Asian American. An Asian American might call him a hapa, a White Asian Indian hapa. His mother was German and French. His father immigrated from India. He is, like Joseph Patel, Asian Indian American. He has visited India and been influenced by his heritage.

Joseph’s play seems to ask: What does it mean when a White person says something to a Black person. Yet we should also ask: What does it mean for a person of ambiguous  racial identity writes something? Should there be a Black Out night? Is Rajiv Joseph Black like Helen Bannerman’s main character in the 1862 “Little Black Sambo” to be considered Black?

And here’s where we should address that cringe-worthy moment. . In the prologue to the play when the DJ Khloe Janel, a “Non-Binary artist originally from the south” (according to her personal website) and based in Chicago, speaks, she gives thanks to the Native Americans whose land the Mark Taper Forum currently stands on and reminds the audience of the blood, sweat and tears of Black people and how they built this nation.  We’re in Los Angeles, California. Does the DJ know her place? For me, this is a matter of history and demographics.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, to “know your place” is “to accept your position within society, an organization, your family, etc. and to not want to improve it.”  It seems to be related to the idiom “put someone in his/her place,” meaning “to say or do something to show someone that he or she is not better than other people and should not be acting in such a confident and proud way.” Does one know one’s place meaning “proper or designated niche or setting”?

Let’s put this in perspective. There are places in the South, where White people are not the majority. There are places in the South where Black people are the majority. There are places in the South where Hispanic/Latino people are the largest ethnic group. There are not, to my knowledge, places in the South where people of Asian descent are a greater percentage of the population than Black/African Americans.

In Chicago where DJ Khloe Janel is based, the demographics are 29 percent Black/African American and 28.6 percent Hispanic/Latino but only 6.8 percent Asian. Illinois is 14.6 percent Black/African American and 5.9 percent Asian, but 17.5 percent Hispanic/Latino.

Cleveland, where the play takes place, currently has White people as only 39 percent. Black or African American are 47.6 percent–the majority of the population. Asian Americans are 2.5 percent and Latinos are 11.9 percent.

But the Mark Taper Forum is not in Cleveland or Chicago. In the state of California, Black and African American comprise only 6.5 percent of the population while Asian Americans are 15.5 percent and Hispanic/Latino are 39.4 percent. In the City of Los Angeles, Black and African Americans are only 8.8 percent of the population while Asians are 11.8 percent. Latino/Hispanic are 48 percent. In the building of California, as with most of the West, the people who suffered and even died from racially motivated massacres and lynchings were Latinos, Native Americans and Asians–not African Americans. The Mark Taper Forum is walking distance from the site of a major lynching The Chinese Massacre of 1871.  Even after the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) curtailed immigration from China, the violence continue. In 1885, the Chinese were forced out of Pasadena by mobs who set fire to buildings. They were driven out of Santa Barbara and Oakland.

The Chinese were being driven out after they made an exceptional contribution to the West and the West Coast. They helped build the Transcontinental Railroad.

Leland Stanford, president of Central Pacific, former California governor and founder of Stanford University, told Congress in 1865, that the majority of the railroad labor force were Chinese. Without them,” he said, “it would be impossible to complete the western portion of this great national enterprise, within the time required by the Acts of Congress.”

In “Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans”  Jean Pfaelzer details the waves of mob violence in the West.  Of course, the targets of racism weren’t just the Chinese. There were US nationals, Filipinos,  who were also targeted as in the Watsonville Riots of 1930. Filipinos were among the first slaves in the Americas brought by the Europeans. In Santa Anita Racetrack, which served as an assembly center for Japanese Americans is only 20 minutes away (less than 20 miles) from the Mart Taper Forum.

The throw-away line that the DJ uses excludes all this and more.

Before the 1965 Watts Riots and the 1992 LA Riots, there was the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots. The people who built California and the West may have included Black people, but there are other racial and ethnic groups that had more impact.

As we approach Juneteenth, the message becomes even more divorced from California history. Native Americans were enslaved through legal loop holes like California’s Act for the Government and Protection of Indians. The selling of Native Californians was in place when slavery of African Americans was prohibited because unlike Texas, California chose to remain a place that prohibited African slavery which had been abolished when it was still a Mexican territory.  Texas, like Galveston, re-instated it. From 1850 to 1870, well past Juneteenth (19 June 1865),  Native Americans in California were sold in downtown Los Angeles for doing nothing more than loitering or public drinking.

And besides the Cavaliers, Cleveland was, in 2016, the home of the Cleveland Indians, renamed the Guardians in 2022.

In the case of this production at the Mark Taper Forum, the place is Los Angeles and the history of Los Angeles and California is not the history of the North and South or the East Coast. The history of Los Angeles and Southern California is not the history or demographics of Chicago or Cleveland.  Los Angeles is the place where Thind died in 1967.

Thind thought he was White, but the SCOTUS determined he wasn’t White enough. In Los Angeles, Syrian American George Shishim was determined to be White enough in 1909. Shishim notably stated during his court hearings, “If I am Mongolian, then so was Jesus because we came from the same land.” Arab Americans were White enough. Asian Indians were not.

As a person of East Asian descent, I’ve only experienced the shifting identity that comes with people of AAPI background thinking, sometimes mistakenly, that I belong to one ethnic group over another while in places like Hawaii, Japan or South Korea. Finding my place wasn’t easy and, at times, could be a game. In predominately White or Black places in the United States, I’ve often been “granted” forever foreigner status. That is my unfortunate place. Not so for Asian Indians who occupy an ambiguous identity.

So in a play by an Asian American playwright, in a place where Asian Americans are a larger minority than Black/African Americans, the place of Asian Americans in the history of Los Angeles and California should be considered. And in a play by an Asian American playwright whose identity shifts because it doesn’t fit the binary of Black and White, the ambiguous place of the South Asian American should be considered.

“King James” continues at the Mark Taper Forum until 3 July 2022. For tickets or more information, visit CenterTheatreGroup.org.




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