Billie Jean King play gets world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse
La Jolla Playhouse's world premiere of "Love All" chronicles the power of American tennis great Billie Jean King — on and off the court.
It's been 50 years since King famously won a match against self-described "male chauvinist" and former men's champ Bobby Riggs (then aged 55).
Before the match, Riggs was notoriously outspoken about what he perceived as women's inferiority.
"It's a thrill, I'm ready to play, and I'm gonna try to win for all the guys around the world who feel as I do, that the male is king, the male is supreme. I've said it over and over and over again, and I still feel that way. Girls play a nice game of tennis for girls. But when they get out there on the court, with a man, even a tired old man of 55, they're gonna be in big trouble," Riggs said before the match — which you can watch in all its vintage-fuzzy glory on YouTube.
In the Houston Astrodome on Sept. 20, 1973, King soundly defeated Riggs in three sets. It was a pivotal moment — not just for American tennis, but for women's sports around the world. It also marked a watershed moment for Billie Jean King, whose career was threaded with activism.
King holds 39 major tennis titles, and is in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She also played a big role in reshaping the sports landscape for women in the wake of Title IX, founding the Women's Tennis Association and the Women's Sports Foundation — to name just a few of her accomplishments.
Director Marc Bruni said that the script, by playwright Anna Deavere Smith, is built upon snapshots from King's life — and also takes us back to some formative moments in King's life.
"When she was 11 years old, she was kicked off the steps of the Los Angeles Tennis Club for wearing shorts instead of a skirt. And she at that point declared to her mother that she was going to become number one, and also to make a difference in the world and she set out to make it her life's work to do that," Bruni said.
Billie Jean King is played by Broadway actress Chilina Kennedy, who also collaborated with Bruni on "Beautiful." Also portrayed on stage are other tennis greats of the era like Rosemary Casals, Margaret Court, Francoise "Frankie" Durr and more.
Bruni, a Broadway veteran, is most recently known for the Tony-, Grammy- and Olivier-winning production of "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical." He said that even though this sports-centric stage play isn't a musical, the production flexed similar muscles.
"It's not a musical, although in a way it sort of moves like a musical in the sense that it has so many scenes, and that transitions are such a key element of the piece and making the flow go from one scene to the next, that it sort of flows in the way that a musical might flow," Bruni said.
When asked if there's any actual tennis played on stage, Bruni said the victories off the court are what build the stories — but dropped a few hints.
"A lot of what happens in the play is happening off the court. So there is some tennis but we're not gonna come and see any tennis matches reenacted. There are moments of victory, moments of defeat that affect the storyline where we are able to depict those but it's really a lot about what happens in the intersectional battle off the court," Bruni said.
He also mentioned that King, who is 79, stopped by the rehearsals and gave the cast a few impromptu and unforgettable tennis lessons. Throughout the production, she's played a role in shaping the final versions of the play.
"She has been a wonderful part of the process from the beginning. We've done a couple of readings and a workshop and she has been with us in the room several times," Bruni said. "I mean, it's got to be the most crazy thing to watch your life be depicted on stage. What she brings into the room is an inquisitiveness and an interest in everyone around her, and that's really fascinating to have someone who is so iconic and yet so humble at the same time."
"Love All" opens in preview performances June 3 at La Jolla Playhouse, and is on stage through July 2, 2023.