Chris Perfetti on what 'King James' has taught him about theatre, basketball, and friendship
The Abbott Elementary star, whose roots are in stage acting, returns off Broadway in Rajiv Joseph's new play about two men who bond over LeBron James's career.
Ten years before the Emmy-winning sitcom Abbott Elementary made Chris Perfetti (who plays Jacob) a household name, he was an up-and-coming stage actor making his professional debut off Broadway in Sons of the Prophet. Though onscreen fame has since found him, stage acting remains his first love, and he never strays from it for long.
Perfetti’s latest stage project is Rajiv Joseph’s King James. The New York production, which was postponed in 2020, arrives off Broadway after premiere productions in Chicago and Los Angeles and will run at Manhattan Theatre Club from May 2 to June 18. Perfetti plays Matt opposite Glenn Davis's Shawn, two Clevelanders who bond over their interest in LeBron James. Joseph traces the characters' friendship over 12 years, as it evolves in sync with James's NBA career with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and beyond.
Unlike Davis, Joseph, and director Kenny Leon, Perfetti wasn't a basketball fan coming into the rehearsal process. King James has given him a new appreciation for the sport, in part because the play has taught him that sports aren't much different from acting. Both are forms of entertainment. They require endurance and agility. Audiences at both expect to see thrills, surprises, and professionals at the top of their game.
King James has particularly broad appeal because it's about more than either of these things — "it's about life," Perfetti enthused. The show explores how people, particularly men, use sports to connect and make sense of their emotions and lives as they change over time. "It's just a beautifully observed play," Perfetti said of King James's treatment of these themes.
Read more from Perfetti's interview with New York Theatre Guide, and get tickets to see him courtside at New York City Center.
How does it feel to return to theatre after your TV success? Does it feel like a homecoming?
Homecoming, yes. I do feel infinitely more comfortable here. But a return, not so much. I've never really spent a long period of my life where I'm not working on a play, and I hope it remains that way. It's never really gotten too far away from me, but it's a good feeling, I'll say that.
Theatre, as opposed to TV and film, affords the actor way much more control, and it feels like acting. As an actor, that's what I like to do most. So I'm also particularly lucky in this case because I'm working on a play that is so special.
How did you get involved with King James?
We were supposed to be doing this a few years ago before Covid happened, and we were about a week away from going into rehearsal when the world shut down. I was sort of given this gift which no actor gets — I had a good amount of time to dream about this play before we started working on it. And then a year later, when everything started to come back, we had a different director. Everybody who was involved, [their] lives had changed, but the play is so great that it was still a priority for people to do it.
Tell me about your character in King James.
The thing that attracted me to Matt the most is his perspective on life. He's a bit of a loner; he marches to the beat of his own drum. I felt simultaneously an incredible kinship with this person and that he was very different than me. We hail from similar parts of the world, but he was interested in and has gone through very different things than I have. I felt like I had a way in, and I had something to learn from him. I don't want to spoil too much of what he's about or into!
How much of a basketball fan were you before joining the cast? Has that changed since doing this show?
Not much, and yes, it's changed. I catch myself, when I'm walking past a sports bar or something, poking my head in. I'm super into it, obviously, when we're in rehearsal and production. It just puts me in the right headspace.
As a kid who grew up doing artsy-fartsy things, my world has been blown open in a way. In the process of working on this play and getting closer with Rajiv and Kenny and Glenn, who are all uber fans, I feel like I have a new love as well. We'll see if it sticks around when the play closes.
A lot of people see sports and the arts as opposites, but there's lots of theatre about sports. What makes the two mesh so well?
I've certainly realized just how much crossover there is. There's so much theatricality in sports, there's so much pageantry — the "event" of [a] "sporting event." Actors — certainly great actors — are, in their own right, athletes on stage. It's always been a real priority of mine; physicality was a big part of my training and it's a big part of what feeds my work. Obviously, the same goes for most athletes.
They're both these forms in which people are striving for excellence. There's so much drama and conflict in sports, and that's exactly what we're looking for on stage. That's why they are so simpatico, even if the audience members tend to be different.
Stories of male friendship, in contrast, are rare on stage. Why do you think that is, and what makes such a story interesting for you to play?
I don't know why that is. One of the many things that makes this play brilliant is that people haven't really explored it before. Even more than that, I just think it's a well-written play, as all of Rajiv's plays are.
I think I do know why, actually. This play is, for me, partly about what men are talking about when they talk about sports. There's such complexity to male friendship and to masculinity, obviously. While it's not surprising that this topic isn't explored more, it's perfectly utilized in this context. The way you talk about male friendship is through sports, or [at least] one way.
The play is definitely about that, but I hate pigeonholing it in any way. It's not really a play about sports. It's not really a play about male friendship. I mean, it is both of those things, but it takes place over 12 years, and it's about life. It's truly for everybody. There's no way you can come to this play and feel like, "I have nothing to do with those people."
Photo credit: Chris Perfetti. (Photo by Luke Fontana)
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