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Theatre in Review: Toni Stone (Roundabout Theatre Company/Laura Pels Theatre)

Eric Berryman, Jonathan Burke, April Matthis, Daniel J. Bryant, and Ezra Knight. Photo: Joan Marcus.

If nothing else, Toni Stone unearths a fascinating, underreported aspect of baseball history while simultaneously delivering one of the more memorable heroines of recent months. If the playwright, Lydia R. Diamond, has trouble converting these intriguing materials into the stuff of drama, she gives the audience plenty to think about. She also provides the actress April Matthis with the lead role that she has so long deserved.

One of three women who pioneered careers as professional baseball players in the Negro Leagues, Marcenia Lyle "Toni" Stone had a not-insubstantial, if ultimately frustrated, career in the 1940s and '50s, playing with men who would have preferred that she go away entirely. Diamond focuses on her two seasons with the Indianapolis Clowns, who -- rather like the Harlem Globetrotters -- sparked their play with plenty of comic relief. As presented here, Toni is the team's straight woman -- indeed, given her remarkably literal turn of mind, flat affect, and habit of muttering statistics to herself, she appears to be an undiagnosed case of mild autism. ("I have to have rules I can sink my teeth into," she says, speaking of life on and off the diamond.) Toni is also a gifted player for whom the sport is everything: "This is what I need. What I good at. What I do better than anybody. What I know better than anybody." She isn't exaggerating: She is champion material with two strikes against her as a black woman, a potential legend in a sport that doesn't know what to do with her.

Toni's position is so unique, and her personality so singular, that Diamond at times barely seems to know what do with her or where to focus her attention. As it happens, she tries to cover all the bases, an approach that leaves her play stretched awfully thin. We see the young Toni contending with a disapproving mother who doesn't want an athletic prodigy for a daughter. ("Girls without a source of income become women who find money in unfortunate ways.") Her mentors include a Catholic priest who spots her unusual talents and a coach who is later revealed to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan. She is pursued by Alberga, a genial, older businessman who is determined to make her his wife. Her closest confidant is Millie, a prostitute at the brothel where the Clowns stay when they can't find a hotel that will accept a black clientele. Syd Pollack, the white owner of the Clowns, signs her for the team with the proviso that she will accept "cookies" (pulled pitches), even if she can stack up to any man in the league. (The money, in any case, is terrible, and that's when it gets paid.) The script also delves into the white exhibition games that are minefields of taunting and abuse for Toni and her teammates, as well as the effects of changing times: With integration of the ballparks and the ascension to the major leagues of Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron (whom Toni replaces on the Clowns), the clock is running out on all-black teams, leaving Toni with nowhere to go. Other diversions include comic infighting among Toni's teammates and the disturbing etymology of a certain twelve-letter obscenity beginning with the letter M that is revealed to have its roots in the ugly reality of slavery.

It's rich material and I imagine that Martha Ackmann's biography, Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, makes for fascinating reading. Diamond adopts a scattershot approach, jumping back in time to assemble a collage portrait of Toni's life. Without any kind of organizing principle, however, the script often seems like a collection of anecdotes and data points. "I am prone to ramblin'," Toni says. "Never could tell a story from beginning to end all nice and neat." Fair enough, and kudos to Diamond for not ginning up hackneyed melodrama or for turning the frank, funny, rough-edged Toni into some kind of generic martyr. But the script points to any number of racial issues without fully dramatizing them. In real life, Toni must have balked at throwing games when playing white teams or accepting those cookies, for example. Sexism rears its head, repeatedly: In one chilling incident, Woody, a teammate, quietly reveals how much he resents her and both Millie and Alberga note the terrible bruises she sustains from players trying to knock her out of the game. But little comes from any of these confrontations. (Given Toni's total lack of interest in conforming to the day's standard of femininity -- to the point that she prefers to wear mens' suits -- it would be interesting to know what attracts Alberga to her.) Diamond takes a narrow approach, focusing on a brief aspect of her career - in fact, Toni jumped from team to team -- and, aside from the incident mentioned above, soft-pedaling the hostility of her teammates; rather than invent conflict, she seems determined to downplay it.

If Toni Stone, the play, often seems to be on a road tour with no real destination, Toni Stone, the character, proves consistently beguiling, thanks to Matthis, who engages us with a gleam in her eye; a crooked, not-quite smile; and a deadpan vocal manner that acts as an astringent, scouring away any and all nonsense. Turning to the audience at the beginning of a flashback, she announces, "I'm a little girl," with just a hint of impatience at such silly make-believe. Speaking of Pollack, she says, "He takes as good a care of us as any white man would think he should. Still, you hear what I said? He the owner. He own us." Admitting her problems with organized religion, she says, "Sunday school teachers don't like wiggly girls who ask too many questions." And she doesn't shy away from Toni's often scalding lack of tact: When Millie offers her one of her kimonos, Toni replies, "You all gotta stop trying to make me into... asking me to be... To act like... They think I'm a girl out there, they ain't gone throw the ball to me. Besides, I can't be ridin' on a bus with a bunch of randy men who got girls like you and girls given' it away for free..." "Coulda' just said thank you for the robe and not wore it," replies the mortally offended Millie.

Pam MacKinnon's attractively stylized direction, aided by Camille A. Brown's choreographed sequences, is also solidly cast: Eric Berryman is fine as Stretch, the Clown's source of "gravitas" (as Toni puts it) and as the stentorian, profit-counting Syd Pollack, as is Phillip James Brannon as King Tut, the team's head comedian; Harvy Blanks, as the patient, affable Alberga; and Kenn E. Head, dispensing hard-won wisdom as Millie. (The members of the company double as members of the teams and other characters.) Without raising his voice, Ezra Knight adds a touch of real menace as the irascible Woody, who is sick of having a woman on his team, especially one who shows him up. Riccardo Hernandez's sleek, uncluttered set is dominated by banks of stadium lights that Allen Lee Hughes puts to good use in creating the excitement of game time; he also uses subtle color tints to represent different locations. Dede Ayite's costumes lean toward period-accurate baseball uniforms along with a flattering dress-and-hat combination for Millie and a three-piece suit for Alberga. The music and sound, by the collective known as Broken Chord, mixes snatches of jazz piano with the sounds of the game -- the crack of baseball bats, the thump of balls landing in gloves, and cheering crowds.

Interestingly, Diamond has Toni reject the conventional role of housewife to return to the team, whereas in real life, her career ended soon after her marriage; the rest of her life was spent working as a nurse and taking care of Alberga. One wonders how she felt about that: The best thing about Toni Stone is that it unearths a story one instantly wants to know more about; the most difficult thing about it is that it leaves one wanting rather more than it offers.--David Barbour

(9 July 2019)

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