In Inua Ellams’ new play, “The Half-God of Rainfall,” the gods play thunderous basketball games in the heavens. For Candrice Jones’ film “Flex,” high school students practice their defensive stances as they fight in rural Arkansas. Near the end of Rajiv Joseph’s “King James,” the two main characters play a one-on-one basketball game using a crumpled piece of paper after waxing poetic about the greatness of NBA star LeBron James.
Basketball isn’t just on New York City’s playgrounds this summer. Hoop Dreams is also playing out on stage, highlighting a theatrics, ahem, crossover that has become more pronounced in recent years.
Although basketball is not as popular as, say, American football, its cultural reach surpasses that of other American team sports because its players are among the most publicly recognized. (Three of the top 10 highest-paid athletes in the world, including endorsements and other off-the-field endeavors, according to Forbes, are NBA players.)
“Watching a basketball game is the same thrill I get from watching good theater,” said Taibi Magar, director of “The Half-God of Rainfall”. “It’s like an embodied conflict. It is performed by highly skilled artists. When you’re watching Broadway, you feel like you’re watching NBA performers.”
For Joseph, who grew up in Cleveland, basketball is the most culturally important sport, in part because so many international stars play in the NBA, such as Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets, who is Serbian, and Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, who is from Greece.
“It is attracting from all over the planet, which means that the sport has become a really important athletic activity globally.,” said Joseph, whose play “King James” just ended its run at the New York City Center.
And the prevalence of basketball in pop culture – including in the hip-hop and fashion worlds and, more recently, in film and television – has penetrated the theater space as well. Dwyane Wade, who retired from the NBA in 2019, was among the producers of the Broadway shows “American Son” and “Ain’t No Mo’”.
“Even if someone hasn’t played on a team or played organized ball, we all have access to basketball,” Jones, who wrote “Flex,” said in a recent interview. “You go to any neighborhood or small town, someone has created a basketball goal.”
In the casting of “Flex,” which is in preview at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, potential actors taped themselves playing basketball as part of the audition process. Jones and show director Lileana Blain-Cruz, who both played basketball in high school, said they wanted the basketball played on stage to feel authentic.
“People have different styles, different ways of filming, different personalities, different types of swagger,” said Blain-Cruz. “We care about the individual in the role they play and how they are playing it. And I think that aligns with theater.”
Jones’ play, set in rural Arkansas, tells the story of a high school girls’ basketball team in 1998, aligned with the WNBA sophomore year. creative team. Once the cast was set, some rehearsals weren’t about the act: the cast was practicing basketball at nearby John Jay College.
“There’s a kind of ensemble quality to it,” Blain-Cruz said of the sport. “Like a ensemble of actors playing together, a team of basketball players playing together. Together they create the event.”
Minutes later, as Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” played, Blain-Cruz led a cast warm-up that included hip splits and upper arm stretches. It could have doubled as pre-game prep. The set itself had a basketball hoop hanging from the back and a basketball court painted on the floor. “Flex” refers to a type of game that basketball teams play, and the staged work features multiple instances of the game.
“There is real rigor. It’s real,” said Blain-Cruz. “That’s what’s so satisfying, I think, about stage sports. There’s an honesty to that, right? Dribbling the ball is actually dribbling the ball. We are not realizing the idea of dribbling the ball.”
After a recent outing to a New York Liberty game, actress Erica Matthews, whose character Starra Jones is the fictional team’s 17-year-old point guard, said watching the players reminded her of watching live theater.
“Basketball is very intimate. You can play a one-on-one game in a small space,” said Matthews. “They’re actually performing on a stage and with the way the audience surrounds them, the way they cheer, it’s basically a narrative.”
Downtown at the New York Theater Workshop, Ellams’ “The Half-God of Rainfall,” a Dante-inspired “contemporary epic” about a half-Greek god named Demi who becomes the NBA’s biggest star, is in previews and is scheduled to premiere on July 31. While “Flex” deals with practical issues like teen pregnancy, “The Half-Rain God” transports basketball into a mythical world for the immortals to deal with.
In a recent rehearsal, cast members simulated slow-motion basketball moves under the direction of choreographer Orlando Pabotoy. Actors Jason Bowen and Patrice Johnson Chevannes worked on creating a proper canvas, and Bowen later practiced an impersonation of Michael Jordan—complete with tongue wagging. (Jordan is referenced in the play.)
As Ellams and Magar, the show’s director, watched from tables filled with small inflatable basketballs, they worked on relocating the lines as the choreography required. Although this version of Ellams’ poem has a cast of seven, he said it can be performed with as many or as few performers as the production desires. (A 2019 production at the Birmingham Repertory Theater in England had just two actors.)
Ellams, a Nigerian poet and playwright who has played basketball since he was a teenager, said he created the character of Demi to “do all the things I could never do” on the court. He reflected that basketball has a greater attraction on stage because it is “a much prettier sport”.
“There’s something humiliating and deadly about basketball in the sense that there’s a simple equation,” said Ellams. “The ball bounces; it returns to the palm of the hand. You can break it. This is loneliness, which invites the blues and what it means to play the blues. There is a longing.”
“There’s a natural melancholy to it,” he added, which makes it “easier to pair with the human spirit.”
Of course there were other basketball-related plays. In 2012, “Magic/Bird” explored the friendship and rivalry between 1980s basketball stars Magic Johnson and Larry Bird on Broadway. The 2011 Broadway musical “Lysistrata Jones”, inspired by Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata”, followed a group of cheerleaders who deny their boyfriends sex on the basketball team because they keep losing games. Lauren Yee’s 2018 Off Broadway play “The Great Leap,” also directed by Magar, tells the story of a teenage basketball prodigy who travels to China in 1989 to play in an exhibition game between college teams from Beijing and San Francisco.
Daryl Morey, now an executive with the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, commissioned a musical comedy called “Small Ball” that played in Houston in 2018. It portrays a fictional character named Michael Jordan – no O Jordan – when he finds himself playing in an international league with six-inch-tall teammates.
“I think basketball is just the most important of all sports among up-and-coming directors and playwrights, at least the ones I’ve talked to,” Morey said.
Not that basketball has a theater lock. Baseball has always fascinated playwrights, including classic shows like “Damn Yankees.” Richard Greenberg’s 2003 Tony-winning play “Take Me Out,” about a baseball player who comes out as gay, had a Tony-winning rerun on Broadway last year. In 2019, “Toni Stone,” written by Lydia R. Diamond, depicted the life of Marcenia Lyle Stone, who became the first woman to play in men’s league baseball when she took the field for the Indianapolis Clowns in the Minor Leagues.
Football and boxing too: “Lombardi”, a biographical play based on the life of legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, ran on Broadway in 2010, and 2014 brought a stage adaptation of “Rocky”, the famous boxing movie by 1976, for Broadway.
But for now, it’s basketball that’s being reborn in the theater. Or, to put it in basketball terms, playwrights playing the sport these days have a hot hand.