By Shaley Howard, PQ Monthly
When I was a kid of maybe 7-8 years old, I had a poster of Billie Jean King (BJK) on my bedroom wall. Posed in this powerful forehand tennis swing, she seemed to yell, “I am woman, hear me roar!”—and given the 1970s time period, she might actually have been saying, or at least thinking, that. Now folks who know me might think, Well, of course. You’re a big dyke and so is BJK, so naturally you would have a poster of her on your wall. But this was before I realized I was gay—hormones hadn’t even kicked in yet. And it didn’t matter what your sexual orientation was when it came to BJK. To me and thousands of other little girls, Billie Jean King was a hero—a strong female role model, a tennis star, and someone who spoke openly and boldly about equality for women.
Needless to say, I was thrilled to attend the premiere of She is King, a docuplay about BJK presented by Boom Arts. The play is directed by Katherine Brook and was created by Laryssa Husiak, who also plays the lead role. The play uses actual verbiage from three interviews BJK did: one in 1973 after beating Bobby Riggs in the now infamous “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match, one in 1980 with Toni Tennille of the Captain and Tennille fame, and finally one with Barbara Walters in 1981, when she publicly admitted to having an affair with a woman.
The docuplay has only two actors on stage most of the time, BJK and her interviewer. Behind the actors are approximately 10 old-school TV monitors recording each interview using time-period technology. Add in the era’s fashion, fake plants and Husiak’s spot-on imitation of BJK, and boom—the illusion of the late 1970s is complete.
She is King is hilarious, maddening and heartbreaking at times when watching and, for some of us, remembering how ludicrous and overt sexism was in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The first scene begins with interviewer James Day asking BJK, “Are you an angry woman?” He then proceeds to continually interrupt and talk over her as she calmly answers each question with pose, confidence and grace.
The final interview begins as BJK announces to the world that she had an affair with a woman. This scene in particular is very moving. Here is this legend who’s fought her way to the top of a male-dominated sport—an outspoken pioneer and leader of women’s equality—who’s having to publicly admit her attraction toward another woman. This, of course, takes place in a time period in which homophobia was overt and rampant, and most queers were not living openly. The empathy from this present-day audience watching and reliving those interviews from such a homophobic and sexist period seemed palpable.
She is King is a must-see, not only because the docuplay itself is brilliant and engages the audience from beginning to end, but because it highlights one of the world’s greatest living heroes. When people speak of standing on the shoulders of giants for social and civil rights, they need only hold up a photo of BJK. She not only was and is an advocate of women’s rights and equal pay in sports, she’s also an outspoken LGBT leader. In 2009 President Obama gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for being an “agent of change” and sent her as an official U.S. delegate to the 2014 Russian Olympics as a “fuck you” to homophobic Putin. Who better to send than iconic legend Billie Jean King—a woman and lesbian who never shied away from a challenge. Game, set, match.
She is King runs now through June 7 at CoHo Theatre (2257 NW Raleigh St.), with post-show dialogues. For scheduled performances go to www.boomarts.org. And check out a special message below from the legend herself, urging Portlanders to check out the show!