LeBron James is now theater: Playwright Rajiv Joseph turns Laker’s story into ‘King James’

Basketball star LeBron James' impact on the city of Cleveland during his Cavaliers career is the subject of the world-premiere play announced Thursday by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago in partnership with Center Theatre Group in L.A.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Lakers star LeBron James and his impact on the city of Cleveland during his run with the Cavaliers will be the subject of the new play “King James,” written by Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph and staged by Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago and later Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles.

The play will premiere as part of Steppenwolf’s 2019-20 season. It will arrive in L.A. for Center Theatre Group’s 2020-21 season; CTG, which operates the Ahmanson Theatre and Mark Taper Forum downtown and the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, said “King James” will play at one of the latter two venues.

Early details are scant, but the CTG announcement did include this description: “ ‘King’ LeBron James’ reign in Cleveland brings promise, prosperity and renewal to a city in desperate need of all three. As the city celebrates a championship, two estranged friends spar in a verbal game of 1 on 1, revealing past secrets, present truths, and a possible future after ‘The King’ has left the building.”


The production will feature Steppenwolf ensemble member Glenn Davis, and artistic director Anna D. Shapiro will direct.

CTG has long supported the work of Joseph, who is a newly minted Steppenwolf member. In 2009, the L.A. company staged the world premiere of Joseph’s play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” at Kirk Douglas before moving the critically acclaimed show to the Taper in 2010. From there it headed to Broadway and was a finalist for a Pulitzer.

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While that show was running, CTG artistic director Michael Ritchie commissioned Joseph to write what would eventually become “Archduke,” which premiered at the Taper in 2017.

“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” and “Archduke” both deal with war — Iraq in the case of the former, World War I in the latter. “King James” deals with another kind of conflict: verbal sparring between two estranged friends in a city experiencing a much-needed rebirth thanks to the presence of one of basketball’s biggest stars.

“King James” will run at Steppenwolf from May 7 through June 2020. Dates for the Los Angeles engagement have not been announced.