The show, produced by Incubator Arts for their Other Forces 2014 festival, is a simple but innovative re-enactment of archival video footage of three television interviews King gave at crucial moments in her career - at the height of her fame in 1973, and immediately before and after she was outed as a lesbian in 1981. Each separate interview takes place with King center stage, volleying questions from different interviewers.
Husiak is a wonder in the role; quiet and powerful, revealing the different layers of King. In the first interview, she is firm and optimistic, fielding sexist questions from a chauvinistic interviewer with aplomb. During the second interview with talk show host Toni Tennille, she is more relaxed. Husiak manages to be both shy and forthcoming when fielding Tennille's questions, and there is an air of schoolgirl playfulness - possibly flirtatiousness - in her responses to Tennille, whose intrusive questions are hidden behind the huge smile of (the excellent) Louisa Bradshaw.
The last interview, by Barbara Walters (Louisa Bradshaw, again, and again excellent), King must deal with the fallout of her extramarital same-sex affair. Her husband is present (played by Joshua William Gelb), and King seems exceptionally withdrawn and embarrassed as she explains her actions. Yet Walters' final question, "Do you think that it [King's affair] will, in the long run, hurt tennis?" allows Husiak to move from embarrassment to intense determination, "No," responds King, "Not at all."
The production is a risk-taker, a rabble-rouser that believes in its content enough to take creative chances. More often than not, these chances pay off nicely, such as the scene in which King admits to her affair in a frenzied press event. Through the use of multiple hand-held cameras on a closed circuit to seven monitors, we see King from the front and from the back during the admission. As we hear King's actual dialogue via voice over, we see only the back of her head, effectively disembodying her voice and leaving us with the impression that she has been boiled down to a sound-bite, a faceless media story that hints toward the power the paparazzi will hold in the coming decades. Yet when she turns to show us her face, we see her shame and vulnerability - a woman whose strong, one-armed backhand can't save her in the fast-changing world of immediate public scrutiny.
Other directorial choices, such as using fidgety middle school students as the production's crew to demonstrate, as the production notes say, "the importance of equality and social justice for all people," are too distracting to justify their merit. But Katherine Brook, the director, deserves her own round of applause for her simple, thought-provoking production.
She is supported by an inventive design team: Josh Smith's lights and sets are sparse and effective, and Chris Giarmo's precise sound design is critical in a production that relies heavily on archival recordings.
The supporting cast give vital but subdued performances, allowing Husiak as King to quietly creep into our consciousness. It's rare to hear absolute silence in a theatre, but throughout She is King the small, absolute silences in Husiak's performance are the stop-time emotional equivalent of watching an eighty-mile-an-hour tennis serve - they come right at the audience with the driving force of a strong woman who knows her own strength. The whole production is a short, disciplined theatrical match worth seeing.
Jan. 16 at 7 pm
Jan. 18 at 5 pm
Jan. 19 at 5 pm
Jan. 23 at 7 pm
Jan. 24 at 7 pm
Jan. 25 at 5 pm
Jan. 26 at 5 pm
The Incubator Arts Project, 131 East 10th Street, St. Mark's Church on the Bowery. For schedule and tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit www.incubatorarts.org.
Directed by Katherine Brook
Billie Jean King - Laryssa Husiak (conceived and created by)
Barbara Walters and Toni Tennille - Louisa Bradshaw
James Day and Larry King (Billy Jean's Husband) - Joshua William Gelb
Sound Design - Chris Giarmo
Lighting and Scenic Design - Josh Smith