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'Love All' Captures Billie Jean King's Career, Documentary-Style, at La Jolla Playhouse

by Cassiopeia Guthrie, June 27, 2023

Anna Deveare Smith’s new biographical play Love All has arrived at the La Jolla Playhouse, telling the story of tennis great Billie Jean King. The documentary-style production runs through July 2.

The show, which is publicized as being set “against a backdrop of the massive social changes of the 1960s and ‘70s,” intends to evoke “the highs and lows of Billie Jean’s extraordinary career,” asking “not just what it takes to be a champion, but what it takes to change the course of history.”

A reporter interviews Billie Jean.
Bianca Amato (left) and Chilina Kennedy in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of LOVE ALL; photo by Rich Soublet.

From this perspective, Love All does exactly what it sets out to do, highlighting the life and career of the infamous champion of the court. And, where it lacks a clear plot line, it makes up for in style and performance quality. All in all, it is easy to see why this show has been well received.

The cast behind the production is tight and talented under the direction of Marc Bruni. The show features (alphabetically) Bianca Amato, Rebecca S’Manga Frank, Wynn Harmon, Elena Hurst, Ben Jacoby, Chilina Kennedy, Lenne Klingaman, John Kroft, Nancy Lemenager, Kate Rockwell, Allison Spratt Pearce, and Justin Withers, as well as understudies Summer Broyhill, Geno Carr, Spencer Hunsicker, Noah Keyishian, Mikaela Macias, Colby Muhammad, Ellen Nikbakht, and Shana Wride.

Each performer did a great job during the show I attended, in particular the lead Chilina Kennedy, a captivating performer who embodied all of the endearing mannerisms of the trailblazer. This is no easy feat, given the quick scene changes and the fact that she is ever-present in the scenes, often in different venues (Robert Brill), wearing different costumes (Ann Hould-Ward), and occasionally with new wigs (Jared Janas and Cassie WIlliams).

The women of Love All sit around Gladys as she wheels and deals to get them a tournament of their own.
(L-R) Elena Hurst, Nancy Lemenager (seated), Bianca Amato, Chilina Kennedy and Allison Spratt Pearce in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of LOVE ALL; photo by Rich Soublet.

Those aforementioned quick scene and set changes are well handled by both the cast and crew, with clever moving light line projections by S. Katy Tucker that help stitch the quick-paced transitions together. Light design (Jiyoung Chang) and sound design (Darron L. West) are solid throughout, and there is one very clever interview video component that was exceptionally well done. Interspersed news media clips (likely intended to help the audience maintain context about the social landscape in which the play takes place) are used periodically and move us through the brief periods of time between scenes.

However, the inclusion of these historical scenes, as well as the continued villainous (or counter-progressive) presence of male sports executives and athletes, while accurate to the storyline being told, ends up being problematic in that the action of the story always seems predicated by some oppressive action. Again, yes, this is accurate to history (and, unfortunately, to the present day as well), but I felt that it often detracted from the potential of telling a story of such a trailblazer and champion, both on the court and off, that truly celebrates her monumental impact.

Instead, we are left with a quick transition from her insistence that she will be number one in the world to her actually being number one and then maintaining it. We have a handful of huge tennis wins with quite possibly less stage time than the Kennedy and MLK Jr. assassinations, and a lackluster agreement to launch the Women’s Tennis Association that highlights her colleagues’ and the other players’ reservations. Where is the power?

Billie Jean tries to convince Arthur Ashe to join the movement.
Chilina Kennedy and Justin Withers in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of LOVE ALL; photo by Rich Soublet.

There is a way to tell a story of equity or alliance that inspires young people to fight for what they believe in, in spite of the personal risk and challenges. We know this, because The Old Globe put on The XIXth earlier this year, which did much more successfully what I assume Love All tried to do.

Ultimately for me, the continued focus on historical events surrounding men and detractions like King’s affair with a girl from Big Sur and her abortion do not do this story justice, and the final scene, a third-wall breaking assertion that “we’re not done yet” simply isn’t enough to come back from a lengthy meandering through a variety of life episodes.

Billie Jean King was a groundbreaker whose efforts not only paved the way for equal opportunity for women, but also for TItle IX, and her efforts were not alone. As Alice Marble says to her at one point in the production, “You can never make all the difference by yourself.” Perhaps the team was trying to highlight the entirety of this woman’s life while elevating the work of those around her and the ways in which their stories intersected. However, by not focusing on one specific achievement, or on the magnitude of her impact to generations past, I am not sure that this story resonates the way it could with younger audiences who may or may not be as familiar with those achievements. For me, the script fell short in championing a woman who deserves a standing ovation.

Regardless of these considerations, I truly enjoyed the experience of sitting in the house, experiencing this historical story through Love All’s vignettes and I look forward to seeing how future iterations unfold with clarity and purpose in honor of this feminist icon.

Love All plays for one more weekend at the La Jolla Playhouse.


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