For decades, sports have been known as the great unifier. The most racist white men crowd around the TV to gladly cheer on their favorite Black running back on Sundays. After every major league desegregated, the idea of winning had begun to trump something as pedestrian as color. But what happens when a Black athlete does something a white fan believes they shouldn’t? Are they immediately filed back into the category as other, or does the quest toward winning continue to drive that fan toward unity?
Through the lens of “King James,” a play at Manhattan Theater Club, actor Chris Perfetti (known as the loveably woke Jacob “Mr. C” Hill on the hit ABC show “Abbott Elementary”) explores the complex dynamics of race and sports in his lead role as an obsessed Lebron fan. I talked to Perfetti on “Salon Talks” about playing Matt, a privileged, white, somewhat progressive Cleveland Cavaliers season ticket holder, who plays opposite Shawn, an upcoming Black writer, played by Glenn Davis.
In “King James,” written by Rajiv Joseph (“Bengal Tiger”) and directed by Tony Award winner Kenny Leon (“A Raisin in the Sun,” “Fences”) the dynamics of Matt and Shawn’s relationship and their worlds get flipped upside down when LeBron James decides to join the Miami Heat. Matt goes from “we are all equal” to “those people need to stay in their place” – instantly, driving a wedge in his relationship with Shawn. The stark differences between Perfetti’s characters on “Abbott Elementary” and “King James” make him the perfect person to provide insight into the intersection between sports and race, and if we should be calling these leagues progressive at all.
Watch Chris Perfetti on “Salon Talks” here or read our conversation below to learn more about his theater work and his plans to return to “Abbott Elementary” – as soon as writers get paid what they deserve. (Salon’s unionized employees are represented by the WGA East.) Fresh off the show’s Screen Actors Guild award for comedy ensemble, Perfetti says of his “Abbott” cast mates: “I’m obsessed with those people. I feel very lucky that I get to do it.”
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
I had the opportunity to see “King James” last week. For our viewers who are not really familiar with the play, could you talk about the story?
“King James” is this epic meditation on friendship. It’s a new play. I’ve dubbed it like a platonic love story between these two friends who bond over their love of LeBron James and basketball. Our brilliant playwright, Rajiv [Joseph], uses basketball and LeBron’s career to track the friendship of these two guys over 12 years. It’s really about what guys are maybe talking about when they’re talking about sports. It’s about male friendship. It’s about life. You meet these characters the day that they meet each other, and then there’s four quarters, four scenes of the play, and it ends 12 years later and you see every facet of a friendship you can.
You’re from upstate New York. I don’t know how these things work, but does that make you a Knicks fan by default?
If so, I was going to pray for you.
“I never imagined a year in my career where I would get to work more than I am not working.”
I am, for the entire time that I am working on this play, I am a Lakers fan, but I grew up in a very sports-centric house and upstate New York has a lot of love. We have so many teams up there, but I knew very early on that sports was not going to be my thing. So it’s been a nice deep dive into what that life is like working on this play.
You came into the play as a LeBron fan?
Yeah, and I feel like every time I start a new part, I’m trying to figure out what it takes to make that person exist in the world, and I felt like I was really ready to start the play when we did, but it was only after going to games – I went to a couple Cavs games – and just watching all of the history that is LeBron’s life and career, and then it all clicked for me.
I think the more you learn about LeBron as a person, the more respect you have. “King James” gives viewers an opportunity to see how two people from different places can approach a topic without knowing everything.
Yeah, it’s amazing. One of the things I love about the play is the way that they talk about him. The two characters in the play are fascinating people, but they could never do, none of us could ever do what LeBron does, and they talk about him like the decisions that he makes or the things that he achieves or doesn’t achieve, are things that they could even hold a candle to. That’s an amazing facet of pop culture, and I feel like sports especially, that we talk about these people who are so talented, as if we could do a fraction of what they do.
You play Matt. And I think the portrayal was really good, because Matt is a helper and Matt is progressive, but then Matt flicked that switch, with that line: “He needs to know his place.” So many of us who feel like we identify as liberal or progressive don’t really understand how even we can get it wrong. Can you talk about the danger of that?
One of the things that attracted me to the play is I think Rajiv is really good at writing, not just the way that people actually speak, conversations that are real and feel like life, but the way he’s handled this topic and the way it is illuminated by their friendship. I feel like a maybe less clever writer would’ve written a scene about race that is very academic, a scene that is maybe more explicit and less subtle. The grayness and the ickiness of that scene between the two of them, I feel like achieves many things as opposed to just trying to solve the problem of race in America.
“A maybe less clever writer would’ve written a scene about race that is very academic, a scene that is maybe more explicit and less subtle.”
It just felt very real to me. The scene builds with all of these microaggressions that Matt is having towards Shawn and just the way he’s talking about him and the way he’s treating him. I just felt like that was very real. I was like, I think Matt is a well-meaning person, but I think he’s a little high on himself a little bit right now, and it just felt like real life. And so I was like, we have to do that.
I felt like even when they linked back up, they never really addressed that particular issue. So many friendships and relationships explode because s**t happens and you don’t hold yourself accountable and learn what you did wrong. You just hope enough time will go by, and then they’ll say f**k it, and you’ll say f**k it.
Yeah. I think there’s really only one moment in the play where these characters, they’re blunt about their feelings or say something that isn’t coded in a way. I think that’s a great point. I think there’s a strong argument for that may never happen. What I love about the way the play ends is there’s a lot of possibility, but everything’s not tied up in a bow. You can read that as an incredible feat of generosity on Shawn’s part to not need to go back and rehash that. And I think, again, at the end of the day, Rajiv was just interested in the feeling that they have with each other and the understanding, and maybe it doesn’t need to be quashed, and maybe their friendship will never be the same, but maybe it will.
Chris Perfetti and Glenn Davis in “King James” (Michael Brosilow)
And you’re right, that didactic approach, it wouldn’t hit as hard, because for me, what Shawn had is what the Black experience is. It’s like somebody says something racist or something f**ked up or something insensitive, and if you try to fight every battle, you will never get anywhere.
On “Abbott Elementary” your character, Jacob “Mr. C,” he’s the opposite of Matt because he wants to have too many conversations about race. How fun has it been playing him?
“I typically get cast as these brooding, darker, more tragic figures, and Jacob is obviously the opposite of that.”
It’s great. It’s a blast. I feel like I’m a very lucky dude right now, getting to hold both of these things at the same time. They do feel very different, but it’s weird how they inform each other. Like you said, they are in many ways opposites.
But I can’t wait to go back to work. I’m obsessed with those people on that show, and I feel very lucky that I get to do it. It’s only helped by this weird moment that we’re having, where people are responding to the show, and I feel like I’ve gotten very comfortable with s**t not working out, and so having strangers come up to me and tell me that the show means something to them is pretty cool.
I feel like with both of the projects, you play two different people, but they’re both in this space trying to figure out that balance between getting it right and getting it wrong. What role does art play in that for you?
I feel like the other thing that connects them for me is they’re both somewhat loners. They’re both waiting for somebody to give them permission to, in Jacob’s case, change the world and in Matt’s case, just be the best version of himself. It’s weird. I feel like I typically get cast as these brooding, darker, more tragic figures, and Jacob is obviously the opposite of that. I’m trying to just make peace with, while I do feel very connected to that character, that part of this art thing is letting somebody else have control and just trusting that Quinta [Brunson] was like, “Yeah, that’s actually the person that I imagine, or that guy understands something more than maybe he even knows.”
Jacob’s one of my favorite characters in television because I’ve made 300 school visits over the past six years. When I have conversations or when I meet teachers, especially good teachers, it’s nothing like when I went to school. I went to school in the ’90s, and when I went to school, teachers used to say things like, “You’re going to get murdered just like your cousin.”
Oh my God.
But these new teachers, they say stuff like, “Oh, I see you’re having a difficult time, would you like some granola? I just got here from TFA and I brought granola and you can have a part of my check for reparations.” I’m telling these kids like, “Yo, y’all don’t know how good y’all have it. They’re giving away granola and talking about self-care. That’s why it’s so funny to me because “Abbott” is so on-brand. When we had Janelle James on “Salon Talks,” she was talking about how cool it is to improv lines with you and to riff back and forth. What’s that experience like?
“We are blessed with really incredible writers.”
It’s amazing. Improv-ing with Janelle is like trying to play one-on-one with LeBron. She’s just so genuinely funny in life and amazing on the show. It’s a good vibe on set. We are blessed with really incredible writers, and so I feel like the show comes very well baked and there’s not much that we need to do. And I’m fully aware that anything that I come up with on the day is just usually not going to be as funny as what they already wrote down, but a lot of stuff that we do makes it into the show, and there’s a real air of improvisation.
We will riff on stuff that’s already there, and that’s just essential, I think, to the show. If we’re going to make this thing and on some level dupe you into thinking that it’s a documentary, you have to believe that it’s real life. I find that when something is genuinely coming from an actor and not planned or maybe happening for the first time or in collaboration with somebody that doesn’t know it’s going to happen, I feel like that captures the most real life stuff, and that’s just the most enjoyable thing for me to watch. And so I’m trying to do that with Janelle, but the show is usually very well written.
You guys have just given so much life to so many people, and it sucks that we have this strike going on right now, but at the same time, hopefully it’s going to make everyone more comfortable. I know “Abbott” was one of the first shows impacted. What do you hope comes of this?
I hope the writers get what they deserve. I’m simultaneously fretting and not at the same time. People in France do this all the time. We need to get, I think, a little more comfortable with standing up in the way that we are now. It’s unfortunate that we have to do it in this way, but it’s an oddly terrifying and beautiful moment, and I hope it’s over soon.
“Abbott” is also documentary style, so you can probably pay the writers under the table in cash, just maybe shoot a couple of episodes, so we don’t get bombarded with 750,000 brand new reality shows.
I feel like that’s going to happen regardless, but I’ll see what I can do about that.
We were in the studio talking about your fashion sense and how cool your outfits are. Does Mr. C have it in him to dress like Chris?
Maybe Season 5, but no, I think fashion is utility for Jacob. I appreciate that though.
What’s next for you?
We’ve got a month left to do the play, which I’m really excited about. And then I hope it’s not long before we get to go back and start shooting the third season of “Abbott.” It’s wild to even be able to answer that question. I feel like I never imagined a year in my career where I would get to work more than I am not working, and that’s happening, and that’s pretty rad. I’m just so excited to go back to “Abbott.” I think Quinta is a really singular talent and I know that she’s excited about our third season, and so that makes me excited.
“Salon Talks” with actors