Fort Worth — There’s an evergreen, practically omnipresent pair of questions asked of powerful women, whether fictional or not: what did you have to give up to make it to the top, and was it worth it? Sometimes the questions are boiled down to the deeply obnoxious question (only directed at women, natch) of whether a woman can truly “have it all.” It’s understandable that we keep asking these questions—god knows we haven’t found answers yet, or at least, no answers that satisfy all parties. But these days, you need a little more to draw an audience in than simply posing the questions.
By framing the issues not only as regards a powerful woman, but a powerful black woman, Fernanda Coppel’s King Liz broadens the conversation to include issues of race as well, adding new complications to the titular character’s quest for power. It’s a little disappointing, then, that the script raises interesting issues, but doesn’t always explore them in as much depth as one might like, and the plot itself feels formulaic at times. Amphibian Stage Productions offers up a sleek, stylish production of the play (soon hitting your airwaves in a half-hour Showtime adaptation), but occasionally seems to smooth out some of the characters’ rougher edges.
Sports agent Liz Rico (Kenneisha Thompson) is at the top of her game—a stable of powerhouse players, a corner office, and no personal life (just how she likes it)—when her boss Mr. Candy (local mainstay Bob Hess) brings her an offer and an ultimatum in one package: as the acknowledged heir to his throne, if she wants to take over the agency after his imminent retirement, she needs to impress the board of directors. To do so, she needs to recruit a talented, but volatile high school basketball star from the projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn (apparently far grittier in 2015 than in more recent days). The kid, Freddy Luna (Telvin Marjuan Griffin), may have “LeBron James stats,” but he also has a temper, and a record for assault. But this diamond in the rough strikes a chord with Liz, who rose up out of rough circumstances herself. If Liz can keep him in line and get him signed to a franchise, her path to running the agency is clear. But when Freddie stumbles after being pushed into the limelight, Liz begins to question how far she’s willing to go, and who she’s willing to hurt, to keep her career moving forward.
The Amphibian cast, under actor/director William “Bill” Earl Ray is uniformly good, but there’s a sense that the stakes are not always as high for the actors as the story demands. As Liz, Kenneisha Thompson gives a sharp, nuanced performance, especially in scenes that highlight her character’s softer side, but isn’t quite as hard-driving as the character reads on the page. Griffin’s Freddy has a charming swagger in his early scenes, but his character’s explosions into violence (a sort of Chekhov’s gun hanging on the wall, waiting to be fired) aren’t intense enough to surprise the audience, given how clearly telegraphed they are. The two actors have a nice chemistry together, with Freddie dropping some of his macho posturing when he senses Liz is someone who he a) can’t BS and b) is someone he can trust. While Liz’s affinity for Freddie could simply be projection—seeing herself in a kid from the projects with the determination to make good—there’s enough of a maternal sense coming from Liz to, frankly, make the relationship less interesting. Rather than further explore issues around what it means to achieve as a black American, and the baggage attached to that which it touches on in the first scene between Liz and Freddie, the script seems more concerned with emphasizing that Liz never married or had children, and to position her feelings towards Freddie as being colored by that void. It’s still a worthwhile discussion, but perhaps a slightly less interesting one than the playwright could’ve chosen to pursue.
Hess’ Mr. Candy is well-conceived—his veneer of affection for Liz masks his casual condescension towards her, and when that mask falls away towards the end of the play, Hess gives the character a solid sense of menace. Olivia de Guzman gives a lovely performance as Liz’s long-suffering assistant, Gabby, who harbors her own ambitions; she plays her character’s turn by the play’s end with a very light touch. Sam Henderson as Freddie’s long-suffering coach, and on-again, off-again romantic interest for Liz, manages to convey his character’s sense of world-weary emasculation without coming off as a total sad sack, which is an achievement. And Krista Scott makes the most of a nice, if brief, turn as a Barbara Walters stand-in with harder edges than one might expect
Perhaps it’s a testament to progress that King Liz feels like it isn’t breaking new ground—we’re hitting a point in our society where we’re actually getting somewhat accustomed to hearing stories about non-white and/or female protagonists, and perhaps that sense of familiarity is itself revolutionary. In any case, Amphibian Stage Productions has produced a solid, enjoyable staging of the work. We haven’t seen the last of Liz Rico—catch her onstage now before she goes pro on your television screen.