By Michele Willens
Billie Jean King, it’s fair to say, has been everywhere: from Long Beach, California, to Wimbledon (which she won six times), to defeating Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes,” to the Upper West Side, which she calls home. And now she’s being played on a stage.
I just visited La Jolla, California to see the World Premiere of “Love All.” The play is, essentially, a series of vignettes, taking us through the life of this legend of the courts. It begins with King testifying in front of Congress on behalf of Title 9, equalizing sports on campuses. Later, of course, she was also the force behind equal pay for women tennis professionals.
Nothing is spared here, including her fateful first kiss from a woman, and a surprisingly unsympathetic Arthur Ashe. (At least, in the early parts of their careers. Later, they became comrades.) A top-rate cast portrays multiple roles. The play runs a bit too long and needs a tighter second act, but the audience seems to love it. King was there opening night, with her wife of 40 years, Ilana Kloss.
“Love” All was, in fact, the brainchild of another UWS-er, a theatrical producer named Harriett Leve, along with Stephanie Sandberg. Leve had previously been part of the team that dealt with another woman named King (Carole) on the Broadway musical “Beautiful.” “I have always admired Billie Jean on and off the court, and I thought that her story was so worth telling,” says Leve. “She was such an inspiration and model for living your truth and succeeding. I first met and optioned the rights from Billie Jean in 2020. She was consulted along the way and was all in with great energy.”
Leve’s next coup was attracting one of the best writers in the biz: Anna Deavere Smith, an odd choice, the playwright herself says. “Growing up, I was the last kid chosen for any activity that involved a ball. Billie Jean King is an exceptional individual. She became an agent of positive change.” Leve and Smith had worked together before: “I was a co-Producer on Anna’s Broadway play, “Twilight,” and have always been a big fan of her writing,” says Leve. “Once we had a first draft, I approached Marc Bruni (also from “Beautiful”) to direct and he immediately said yes.”
That is a lot of positive response from the first point of the game, so to speak. (Yes, I grew up in a tennis family.) Do the principals see the play moving to New York City? “Yes, our hopes are for Broadway,” says Leve. The odds are that if Billie Jean King is fighting for something–be it equal pay, equal opportunity, same sex marriages–it will happen. (Though one she did not win was the protest against the new Gilder Center at the Natural History Museum.) Still, getting on a Broadway stage takes a lot of investment money. So, let’s say the score right now is deuce.
Frank Guridy, who teaches a class on “Sports and Society” at Columbia notes, “Billie Jean King’s extraordinary life is tailor made for the theatre. As a pathbreaking pioneer in the worlds of sport and feminism, drama was evident in nearly every aspect of her life and career. The creative freedom of a theatrical work possesses the potential to open up an understanding of her many challenges and triumphs in a whole new way.“
The highlight of night for me was getting a warm hug from Billie Jean. She and I had given back-to-back eulogies for my brother two years ago. (They did charity work and World Team Tennis together in San Diego.) In the meantime, though no one has asked, here’s my unsolicited suggestion. How about doing the next performance of Love All at the U.S Open in September? It could play on Arthur Ashe Stadium inside the USTA Billie King National Tennis Center.