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King Liz pushes the gender boundaries in sports
Playwright Fernanda Coppel didn't need to research the world of professional men's basketball — the stars, the positions, the statistics — when she was writing King Liz, her new drama about a hotshot female sports agent.
"I was a major jock," Coppel says. "I love basketball. I played it in high school, was very serious about it when I was younger, and dreamed of being the first woman in the NBA. But unfortunately, I have terrible asthma."
Coppel is still obsessed with the sport ("I'm always checking ESPN.com," she says), but she has her eye on more than just the ball in King Liz, which is now at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre as part of Second Stage's Uptown season. She's investigating the game behind the game, using the business of basketball as a lens to address, among other things, women in power in the American workplace.
Her lead character – Liz Rico – is a former college player who is now an aggressive agent for marquee-name sports stars. She sees something of herself in Afro-Latino high school player Freddie Luna, a gifted loose-cannon making a big noise in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Landing him a Knicks contract will assure Liz's promotion to the head of the powerful agency where she has paid her dues for more than twenty years. Liz and Freddie's shared background of an impoverished childhood and mixed-race heritage deepens their connection, and it makes the deal more emotionally precarious.
"The agent world was a really interesting world to dive into," Coppel says. "Your life is just 'sell, sell, sell' — most of the time at the cost of truth or integrity. When you're driven by selling something I think that does a lot of interesting things to your character."
Liz's major competition for the throne is a white man that the agency's board of directors is leaning toward. By rights, she should ascend; she was there when the firm was launched out of a garage. But built into the corporate culture of the agency are "male-bonding activities she's excluded from because she's a woman," Coppel says, citing a certain regular social gathering that would make Hooters look like Denny's.
As both a wide cultural snapshot and a specific character portrait of outsiders wanting in, the play touches on aspects of Coppel's own life as a first-generation Mexican-American who is also a gay woman. It surfaced in Coppel's imagination "at a point my career where I was starting to rethink things and wondering why I wasn't getting to the place that I wanted," she says. "I feel that gender dynamics and race have something to do with it. I wanted to write about being a really ambitious woman of color and what you have to do to get what you want."
You might conclude that the 29-year-old Coppel, whose surname is pronounced Ko-PELL, is the model for her shark-like title character.
"Liz is a bit of a fantasy of the things that I wish that I could say out loud," Coppel says. "She's a really fun character to write because she says everything that she thinks, point blank, and is fearless and is this strong woman with a strong point of view in this world where there's a lot of lying and deceit."
Coppel also drew on her time as a writer for the TV series The Bridge and Kingdom, when she "worked for some pretty powerful women in the industry" and observed "the differences of how they are in private and public spaces." She noted their twin façades "of being very tough and impenetrable" at work and "yourself" in private.
"I was very interested in that dichotomy and what power does to a woman, what ambition does to a woman, how it shapes you," she says, though she stresses that Liz (played by Karen Pittman) is a fictional character not specifically based on a real person.
In her own career, Coppel points to two major influences: playwright Marsha Norman, who was her mentor when she attended the dramatic writing programs of both New York University and The Juilliard School; and actress-professor Alma Martinez, of the University of California at Santa Cruz, where Coppel earned her undergraduate degree in literature.
They made her feel "confidence in myself and acted like I belonged," the playwright says. "Female playwrights and women in this country are used to being very thankful for opportunities but not always feeling like we belong."
Kenneth Jones is a theatre journalist and dramatist. He also writes at ByKennethJones.com and elsewhere.
Top photo -- of King Liz cast -- by Carol Rosegg.