Love All at the La Jolla Playhouse

Billie Jean King Wins This Match

By: - Jun 15, 2023

Love All, a new play by Anna Deavere Smith and directed by Marc Bruni, is running at the La Jolla Playhouse through July 2.  'Love all' is the score of a tennis match before it starts.  It is a word used often during the course of a game. It means zero.  And that is what athletes were making when Billie Jean Moffit (later King) started playing tennis.

Billie had been active in high school sports and loved playing football.  She was growing into her 5 ft. 4 inches, now small for the sport.  Yet her ferocity and passion made her seem big from the start.  A school friend had taken her to a country club. When she picked up a racquet and started hitting balls, she knew this game was for her.  She gave up softball and other sports and focused.  Alie Marble, a famous player from the 1930s, started coaching her.    

At 17, she and her partner won the women’s doubles tournament at Wimbledon.

No doubt King was always a driven athlete.  Her concern for equity and fairness may have always been an even greater drive, which is saying a lot.

The new play focuses on King’s struggle to get women athletes equal pay and equal respect with the men.  King also sensed that players who weren't backed by money were not going to get into this game.  Looking out over country club courts, King noticed that all the players were white.  “Where are the others,”  she asked.

When the play starts, a young Billie Jean lives in a traditional 1950s family structure. Mothers stayed at home cooking dinners and making clothes for their children. Billie Jean would become part of the turbulent times ahead:  the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King,  the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War.  

With her husband Larry King, she began to organize women’s tennis. Players were entertainers.  Bobby Riggs sensed this when he challenged Billie. Men were having a tough time too in the country club sport.  

In spite of the civil rights movement, misogyny abounded among the male tennis players.  When Billie Jean asked Arthur Ashe to help her get women equal pay, he refused.  She said: “Arthur, I’m more black than you are.”  

King had great compassion for Althea Gibson. She was appalled to find her playing a maid in a film, The Horse Soldiers, with John Wayne and William Holden.

Billie Jean loved her husband, who was a prime mover in the women’s tennis business.  She had told him from the start that she was attracted to women. 

King was outed by a partner.  None of her advisers wanted her to admit the affair.  King was undaunted.  She spoke up and admitted the relationship.  Although LGBT is not her first line of battle, her very presence in an international arena is a signal to the world that sexual preference is a matter of choice and must be honored.

The playwright Anna Deavere Smith usually organizes her work as a series of episodes.  Love All is not an exception.  This makes it difficult at times to get the arc of King’s development as an athlete and a human. Chilina Kennedy is first-rate in the title role. Elena Hurst as Rosie Casals is particularly charming.  Nancy Lemenager is Gladys Haldeman, a sports editor and promoter elegant and surprising. John Kroft makes the tough role of Larry King sympathetic. 

Margaret Court is now an ordained minister, who speaks out against non-traditional relationships. However, her tennis winnings supported her family.  Her husband didn’t work which was certainly non-conventional in those days.  

Billie Jean King created the Women’s Tennis Association.  She promoted Title 9 for women’s equity college sports.  She continues to work for women in sport to this day. She always says she is going to continue this fight until she drops.   Love All entertains us with the story of who and why.