by Ed Malin · January 11, 2014
Tennis star Billie Jean King won the "Battle of the Sexes" and showed untold numbers of women that they could succeed at athletics or anything else they wanted to achieve. Laryssa Husiak's wonderful show She is King is King in her own words. Through innovative stagings of several of King's television interviews from the 1970s and 80s, Hussiak (as King) zeroes in on an articulate, progressive, uncompromising personality whose life is still quite relevant. The cast includes a group of pre-teens who, as ball-girls and boys, operate video cameras and position furniture for the interviews but also remind us who is watching sports stars and why they matter.
In a 1973 interview with James Day (Joshua William Gelb), King alludes to her recent victory over Bobby Riggs and jumps into the question of whether she is an angry person. Why is a female athlete considered "angry"? What's wrong with a person who likes being aggressive pursing their dreams, regardless of gender? The success of women in professional tennis is good for everyone: men, women, rich, and poor. Tennis has changed from an elitist sport which only the independently wealthy could pursue into a game which someone like King, who learned the sport on the public courts in Long Beach, could dominate.
1980 interviews by Toni Tennille and Barbara Walters (both hilariously portrayed by Louisa Bradshaw) show how female icons relate to King's success. King reveals that she, a non-smoker, is grateful to Virginia Slims for sponsoring women's tennis. After several knee operations, she admits that all careers are limited. Husband Larry King (Joshua William Gelb) supports Billie Jean in the aftermath of her affair with Marilyn Barnett. Both committed to tennis and scarred from years of blackmail by Barnett, the couple are confident their love will continue. Billie Jean went on to divorce her husband and embrace her homosexuality, and her appointment as a U.S. delegate to the 2014 Sochi Olympics is seen as pro-gay rights in the darkness of Russia's harsh policies.
This entertaining show is as much about people as it is about sports. What does it mean to concentrate on one thing? Why should anyone tell you what you want to be? Director Katherine Brook is a frequent collaborator with Husiak, and this never-dull production shows the many emotional sides of King. The cast is delightful in their recreation of those 70s broadcasts (if you liked Frost-Nixon, this will be most enjoyable). Sylvianne Shurman's costumes are perfectly airy and groovy. Stephen Tonti's videos appear live on six or so TVs at the back of the set, making these important characters larger-than-life. Josh Smith's set rejoices in the 70s, down to the plush carpet and awkward paintings. All of this adds up to the truth that King was not only of her time, she was and is of herself. We are all living in the world that she demonstrated is much healthier when people are who they want to be.