Mention the name Billie Jean King, and most Americans — at least those who were around on Sept. 20, 1973 — will remember the “Battle of the Sexes,” when the international tennis champ easily defeated self-proclaimed “chauvinist pig” Bobby Riggs in a televised match watched by more than 90 million people.
But King’s battle to break down the walls of discrimination in the male-dominated sport didn’t start on that fall afternoon 50 years ago. After the match, the 29-year-old King told reporters that her battle for women athletes’ rights started at age 11, when she was barred from a group photo at the Los Angeles Tennis Club because she was wearing shorts rather than a tennis dress.
In the years that followed, King blazed a trail, not only as a player ranked No. 1 in the world six times from 1966 to 1974, but also as an activist who fought tirelessly for women’s equity and social justice. Her testimony before the U.S. Congress in 1972 has been widely credited with paving the way for the passage of Title IX, which requires schools to provide girls with equal and fair access to athletics programs.
King’s story has been told in documentaries, TV movies, features films and numerous books, including her own 2021 autobiography, “All In.” Now it arrives onstage in a world premiere play named “Love All” that opens in previews Saturday at La Jolla Playhouse. Written by multiaward-winning playwright Anna Deavere Smith and directed by Mark Bruni , the play begins on that fateful 1955 day at the tennis club photo session.
“There was that moment where she was kicked out of the picture, and her mother had spent a long time making those shorts for her. She said, ‘I’m going to be No. 1 in the world and I want to make a difference and be a change agent,” Bruni said.
At first, Deavere Smith and Bruni may seem an unlikely pair to create a theatrical sports biography.
As a playwright, Deavere Smith is known for writing more than 20 docu-theater solo plays where she performed all the characters, including “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” and “Let Me Down Easy.” And Bruni has made his name in the musical theater world, helming the Broadway and international productions of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” as well as productions of “Guys and Dolls” and “The Music Man” at the Kennedy Center, among others.
But both of them are fascinated with telling the stories of real people during tumultuous times — and both say that King’s story is about so much more than tennis.
Deavere Smith, familiar to TV audience for roles on “The West Wing” and “Nurse Jackie,” said she was never interested in sports growing up, but she loves telling stories about “change-makers.”
“I’m very interested in the 1960s and ‘70s and the things that happened in our country at the time,” Deavere Smith said. “Much of my work is under the umbrella called ‘On the Road: A Search for American Character’ to understand America. The life of the 1960s — I think that transformative time is very interesting.”
Bruni was approached to direct the piece not long after his triumph with “Beautiful,” which told another story about a pioneering American woman during the 1960s and ‘70s. And when he was sent an early draft of Deavere Smith’s script, Bruni said he was “knocked out and honored” to have the opportunity to work with the famous playwright.
“This period of time is similar to the time that had been examined in ‘Beautiful,’ but through a completely other woman with the last name King,” Bruni said. “It’s been great to look through a different lens at these same years and watch the way that Anna so artfully knits together this intersectional tale of the way in which so many issues came to a head in the cauldron of the 1960s.”
A maverick from childhood
According to her official biography, King was born Billie Jean Moffitt on Nov. 22, 1943, in Long Beach. She grew up in a family of athletes. At age 10 she started playing basketball, then switched to tennis at her father’s suggestion. She would become known in the sport for her speed, her aggressive style of play, her net game and her fierce backhand. But as she grew in the sport, she realized the inequity she would face as a girl.
In 1959 she turned pro and began training under tennis great Alice Marble. In 1961, she and Karen Hantze Susman became the youngest-ever pair to win the women’s doubles title at Wimbledon. It would be the beginning of a long line of Wimbledon victories for Moffitt, who married law student Larry King in 1965 and took his surname. The following year, she achieved her childhood goal of becoming the world’s No. 1 women’s player. She would go on to dominate the sport, alongside her rival Margaret Court, for much of the next decade, winning 20 Wimbledon titles, 13 U.S. Open titles, four French Open titles and two Australian Open titles, for a total of 39 Grand Slams.
Off the court, King campaigned for equal prize money in men’s and women’s games and became the first woman athlete to earn more than $100,000 in prize money. Despite her success, by 1970 male tennis pros were earning 12 times more than women at the U.S. Open, the nation’s largest tennis tournament.
That year, King was one of nine women players who broke from the tennis establishment to demand equity. With the backing of the Philip Morris tobacco company, the women — dubbed the “Original 9” — joined the Virginia Slims Circuit that guaranteed them eight women-only tournaments and much higher pay. In 1973, the Original 9 — and many other women players who joined the Virginia Slims Circuit in the intervening years — formed the Women’s Tennis Association, with King as the first president. That year, the women successfully fought for equal pay at the 1973 U.S. Open.
That same year, King took on Riggs, who had called women players inferior to men, and she beat him in straight sets. That event has been described as the greatest women’s sports moment in history. In 1974, King co-founded both the World Team Tennis co-ed circuit and the Women’s Sports Foundation to provide girls access to sports.
Meanwhile, in the early 1970s, King started a secret relationship with a woman. Following their breakup, the ex-girlfriend filed a palimony suit and outed King in 1981. King lost all of her endorsement deals. That experience spurred her to become an activist for LGBT rights. Following her amicable divorce from Larry King, she found a permanent partner in Ilana Kloss. After decades together, they married in 2018 and live in New York City.
In 1987, King was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. In 1990, Life Magazine named her one of the “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century.” And in 2009, President Obama awarded King the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her advocacy work on behalf of women and the LGBT community.
Finding the story
Deavere Smith is a dogged researcher, who has interviewed as many as 300 people to write a single one of her docu-theater plays. So when she made her first pass at the “Love All” script, she confesses it was “not short.” But over a series of readings and a workshop in New York, she and Bruni have gradually winnowed down the script to its truest essence and were still making last-minute adjustments during rehearsals in mid-May in La Jolla.
Bruni said the play tells King’s story against the backdrop of major national events that would gradually impact and influence her life, including the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, the civil rights movement and the moment in 1967 when boxer Muhammad Ali refused his induction into the U.S. armed forces.
Deavere Smith said adding in these vignettes of historical moments deepens the play and provides context for King’s motivations.
“I’m very interested in discord and disruption,” Deavere Smith said. “We get to see things more closely this way. If you look at a grain of sand up close, you see lots of different colors. Not just beige.”
The play features 12 actors, including Chilina Kennedy as King. Several cast members play multiple roles for a sprawling total of 35 to 40 characters.
Bruni and Deavere Smith said that King has been deeply involved in the fine-tuning of the script. She attended most of the workshops and readings and, on May 18, she surprised the cast at La Jolla Playhouse by popping in for a visit.
Bruni said King is committed to making sure that people who helped her along the way get proper credit in the play, and she wants to ensure everything is told right, while still allowing room for dramatic license.
“She’s a great theater lover and she’s excited about the idea of having this story told in a new fashion and its potential to reach a new audience,” Bruni said. “As our country seems to go backwards in some ways to fight the same battles, it becomes something that’s able to provide a template for the benefits of collective action.”
Deavere Smith said one of the things that was most important to her was capturing King’s voice and her unique personality in the play.
“To me what is striking about her is her level of commitment, or as (Ilana) says of her, ‘she shows up, she brings all of herself to the table all of the time,’” Deavere Smith said. “She’s a ball of absolute energy.”
Bruni and Deavere Smith said their great hope with the play is that it introduces King and her legacy to a younger audience who were not around when the “Battle of the Sexes” played out a half-century ago.
“I know that everybody who comes will have, or had, a time in their lives where they had to fight for something, whether it was political or marriage or their child to get into school or remain healthy,” Deavere Smith said. “What Ilana said about Billie bringing her whole self … I want to indicate to an audience to fight for what you believe in and not be afraid of your individuality.”
When: Previews, Saturday through June 8. Opens June 9 and runs through July 2. Showtimes, 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Where: Mandell Weiss Theatre at La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla
Phone: (858) 550-1010