This weekend, the Semel Theater will be transformed into an NBA court as Emerson Stage presents just the second-ever production of King Liz, a story of a black woman in the white male world of sports agency.
It examines the obstacles and pressures faced by people who want to succeed in a world that that wasn’t built for them, and what it takes to rise above it, whether a woman of color fighting sexism and racism in one of the country’s most notorious white boys’ club, or a black teenager living under the microscope of his NBA dreams.
“This play tells the story of what happens when their two lives entangle,” said director Benny Sato Ambush, senior producing director-in-residence in the Performing Arts Department, “and in the process, it shines a light on issues of ethics, morality, careerism, the commodification of young sports talent, race, money, and the lure of what we’ve been calling in our production ‘gladiator glam.’”
Latina playwright Fernanda Coppel has written a TV pilot for Showtime based on her play, which premiered in 2015 at Second Stage in New York City. Emerson Stage’s production will be the show’s second, Ambush said.
Liz Rico, a “gladiator” who rose up from the Red Hook projects to run the NBA division of one of the largest sports agencies in the country, is on the verge of being named CEO of the agency. But before she’s handed the reins, she has to sign and make a star out of Freddie Luna, an Afro Latin high school basketball phenom with a criminal record and temperament issues—a phenom who may not be ready for the scrutiny, pressures, and temptations of the NBA.
The tagline, and the ultimate dramatic question, of the play, said Ambush, is “To win success but lose your soul is a hollow victory.”
Ambush had never seen the play in its entirety when he brought it to Emerson Stage. Last spring, while on leave to teach at New York University, he was directing an industry showcase for a graduating MFA acting class, which included a scene from King Liz.
“I just said, ‘Man, I gotta do this,’” Ambush said.
Kayla Smith ’18, the Theatre Education major who plays Liz opposite sophomore Christopher Streat’s Freddie, was reading scripts for auditions during a layover in Baltimore last fall when she dug into King Liz and had the same thought.
In many ways, Smith said, she is Liz Rico—the ambition, the drive to succeed in a white-dominated world that constantly pushes back.
“Even when my mom read it, she was like, ‘Kayla, I get it.’” Smith said.
Smith said the role of Liz is the first lead she’s ever played, and she’s having a lot of fun with it.
“It’s a feast for the senses,” Smith said. “You take this emotional journey through the lives of these five characters who are very different from one another.
“Every character transforms through the journey of it, and I think that’s what’s so unique about it,” she said.
Turning the Semel into courtside seating is a feat of collaboration and creativity. The artistic and production staff includes credits like cheerleader choreographer, light board programmer, hip-hop consultant, and voiceover artist, alongside more frequent titles like assistant director, scenic designer, and technical director.
“I am very proud of the collective effort; it’s been pretty remarkable,” Ambush said. “It’ll impress whoever comes.”
King Liz opens Thursday, February 16, and runs through Sunday, February 19. For showtimes and tickets, visit aestages.org.