In Inua Ellams’s new play, “The Half-God of Rainfall,” the gods play thunderous games of basketball in the heavens. For Candrice Jones’s “Flex,” high schoolers practice their defensive stances while scraping by in rural Arkansas. Near the end of Rajiv Joseph’s “King James,” the two main characters play a one-on-one game of basketball using a crumpled up piece of paper after waxing poetic about the greatness of the N.B.A. star LeBron James.
Basketball hasn’t just been on the playgrounds of New York City this summer. Hoop dreams are also playing out onstage, highlighting a theater, ahem, crossover that has become more pronounced in recent years.
While 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 recognizable. (Three of the 10 highest-paid athletes in the world, when including endorsements and other off-field endeavors, according to Forbes, are N.B.A. players.)
“Watching a basketball game is the same excitement I get from watching great theater,” said Taibi Magar, the director of “The Half-God of Rainfall.” “It’s like embodied conflict. It’s executed by highly skilled performers. When you’re watching Broadway, you feel just like you’re watching N.B.A. performers.”
For Joseph, who grew up in Cleveland, basketball is the most culturally important sport partly because so many international stars play in the N.B.A., like the Denver Nuggets’s Nikola Jokic, who is Serbian, and the Milwaukee Bucks’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who’s from Greece.
“It’s drawing from every place on the planet, which means that the sport has become a really important athletic pursuit globally,” said Joseph, whose play “King James” just ended its run at New York City Center.
And basketball’s prevalence in pop culture — including in the worlds of hip-hop and fashion and more recently in film and television — has also penetrated the theater space. Dwyane Wade, who retired from the N.B.A. in 2019, was among the producers of the Broadway shows “American Son” and “Ain’t No Mo’.”
“Even if one hasn’t played on a team or hasn’t played organized ball, we all have access to basketball,” Jones, who wrote “Flex,” said in a recent interview. “You go in any hood or any small town, someone has created a basketball goal.”
In casting “Flex,” which is in previews at the Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, prospective actors recorded themselves playing basketball as part of the audition process. Jones and the show’s director, Lileana Blain-Cruz, who both played basketball in high school, said they wanted the basketball being played onstage to look authentic.
“People have different styles, different ways of shooting, different personalities, different kinds of swagger,” Blain-Cruz said. “We care about the individual in the role that they play and how they’re playing it. And I think that aligns itself to theater.”
Jones’s play, set in rural Arkansas, tells the story of a girl’s high school basketball team in 1998, which aligned with the second year of the W.N.B.A. So as the audition process advanced, the actors were asked to dribble, shoot and do layups for the creative team. Once the cast was set, some rehearsals weren’t about staging at all: The cast had basketball practice at nearby John Jay College.
“There’s a kind of ensemble quality to it,” Blain-Cruz said about the sport. “Like an ensemble of actors playing together, a team of basketball players performing together. Together, they create the event.”
Minutes later, as Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” blared, Blain-Cruz led a warm-up with the cast that included hip openers and upward arm stretches. It could have doubled as pregame preparation. The set itself had a basketball hoop hanging in the rear, and a basketball court painted on the floor. “Flex” refers to a type of play basketball teams run, and the staged work features several instances of game play.
“There’s a real rigor. It is real,” Blain-Cruz said. “That’s what’s so satisfying, I think, about sports onstage. There’s an honesty to it, right? Dribbling the ball is actually dribbling the ball. We’re not performing the idea of dribbling the ball.”
After a recent outing to a New York Liberty game, the actress Erica Matthews, whose character, Starra Jones, is the 17-year-old point guard of the fictional team, 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 amount of space,” Matthews said. “They’re actually performing on a stage and with the way the audience is surrounding them, the way they’re cheering, it’s basically storytelling.”
Downtown at the New York Theater Workshop, Ellams’s “The Half-God of Rainfall,” a Dante-inspired “contemporary epic” about a half-Greek god named Demi who becomes the biggest star in the N.B.A., is in previews and is scheduled to open July 31. While “Flex” deals with down-to-earth issues, such as teen pregnancy, “The Half-God of Rainfall” transports basketball to a mythical world for immortals to deal with.
At a recent rehearsal, cast members pantomimed slow motion basketball movements at the direction of the choreographer, Orlando Pabotoy. The actors Jason Bowen and Patrice Johnson Chevannes worked on setting up a proper screen, and Bowen later practiced a Michael Jordan impersonation — complete with the tongue wagging. (Jordan is referenced in the play.)
As Ellams and Magar, the show’s director, looked on from desks cluttered with tiny inflatable basketballs, they worked on reallocating lines as the choreography required. Though this version of Ellams’s poem has a cast of seven, he said it can be staged with as many or as few performers as the production desires. (A 2019 production at the Birmingham Repertory Theater in England had only two actors.)
Ellams, a Nigerian poet and playwright, who has played basketball since he was a teenager, said he created the character Demi to “do all the things that I never could” on the court. He mused that basketball has a greater draw to the stage because it is “a far more beautiful sport.”
“There’s something humbling and mortal about basketball in the sense that there’s a simple equation,” Ellams said. “The ball bounces; it comes back up to your palm. You can break that down. This is solitariness, which invites the blues and what it means to play the blues. There’s a longing.”
“There’s a natural melancholy about it,” he added, which makes it “easier to pair with the human spirit.”
Of course there have been other basketball-related plays. In 2012, “Magic/Bird” explored the friendship and rivalry between the 1980s basketball stars Magic Johnson and Larry Bird on Broadway. The 2011 Broadway musical “Lysistrata Jones,” inspired by Aristophanes’s “Lysistrata,” followed a group of cheerleaders who withhold sex from their boyfriends 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 N.B.A.’s Philadelphia 76ers, commissioned a musical comedy called “Small Ball” that played in Houston in 2018. It depicts a fictional character named Michael Jordan — not the Jordan — as he finds himself playing in an international league with teammates who are six inches tall.
“I think basketball is just the most important of all of the sports among the up-and-coming directors and playwrights, at least the ones I’ve spoken to,” Morey said.
Not that basketball has a lock on the theater. Baseball has long been an object of fascination for playwrights, including classic shows like “Damn Yankees.” Richard Greenberg’s Tony-winning 2003 play, “Take Me Out,” about a baseball player who comes out as gay, had a Tony-winning revival 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 a men’s baseball league when she took the field for the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro Leagues.
Football and boxing, too: “Lombardi,” a biographical play based on the life of the legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, ran on Broadway in 2010, and 2014 brought a stage adaptation of “Rocky,” the famous 1976 underdog boxing film, to Broadway.
But for the moment, it is basketball that is having a renaissance in theater. Or to put it in basketball terms, playwrights who take on the sport currently have the hot hand.
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