Rehearsal; warming up for the show. Jonathan Burke; April Matthis; and Ezra Knight. Photo: Jenny Anderson.
Pam MacKinnon, Director
Based on the book “Curveball, The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone.”
(Closing Sunday August 11 at the Roundabout Theater Company)
REVIEW: Althea Gibson, Wilma Rudolph, Toni Stone? Three African women, all pioneers in professional sports, all of whose talents and achievements are criminally underappreciated. And Toni Stone is probably the least well-known of these unknown superstars. Maybe this play, and the hoped-for national touring company will change things.
Closing weekend (aka THIS SUNDAY) is approaching; your last chance to experience this great theater biography, Bring the children and the grands because this show teaches life lessons while entertaining and informing the audience. That’s what theater should be about.
Toni Stone, born Marcenia Lyle Stone, was the first woman to play in the historic Negro Baseball Leagues. Josh Gibson, “Cool Papa” Bell, Buck Leonard, Satchel Paige (google ’em) – these great Black players owed nothing to the talents of a Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth. Only their Black skin denied them immortality via the major leagues.
The league wasn’t all it could be. Two, sometimes three games in a day. Stuck on a bus in the Jim Crow south. And west. All of America was Jim Crow, including the liberal northeast. Stone’s team was called the Indianapolis Clowns. And at times, they would have to clown around on the field. Gotta make a living. They would keep game scores close when playing inferior, local, white teams. Don’t antagonize the crowd. But occasionally, when the rednecks got too graphic, they could and would administer a baseball whuppin’. And then run for the team bus when the last out was recorded.
Stone was a young post-WWII dreamer who wanted to play with the big boys. Through preparation, negotiation, and persistence she made her dreams come true. She didn’t wait for the women’s movement, she insisted on her right to self determination. She plotted her own life trajectory, and wouldn’t let her loving parents, her future husband, or her team owner divert her from her goals.
In another, fairer world, Stone might have been a diplomat in the Ralph Bunche mode – a Secretary of State or UN Secretary-General. She negotiates with her parents so that she can play sandlot ball. She negotiates with the team owner so that she gets a chance with the Clowns. She negotiates her hook up and courtship with her future husband. And she negotiates her way out of the traditional wife’s role, and back onto the team, after she gets tired of “baking” pancakes.
April Mathis “steals” the Roundabout Theater production of TONI STONE, as the diminutive title character. Under the direction of Pam MacKinnon, and notwithstanding a very strong supporting cast,she makes the production seem like a one-woman show. Her command of the stage, ease of delivery, and her sing song, southern-flavored voice (I assume but don’t know if this was a stage dialect) make for a lively two hours plus intermission.
Following the baseball theme the cast has nine members, the starting lineup for the Indianapolis Clowns. Her teammates included the brainiac, who quotes Du Bois, the Romeo, who chases women, and the slugger, who knows he’s a better player than Jackie Robinson.
In fact, the great Robinson acknowledged that there were many Negro League players whose games were better than his. Robinson was selected in large part because of his even disposition and his college (UCLA) background. Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn “Trolley-Dodger” boss, wanted someone who could/would turn the other cheek when an opposition player would slide into second base, razor-sharp spikes high, and try to bloody his knees. Robinson filled that role and delivered Brooklyn it’s only World Series victory.
Stone continued her sports involvement as a coach and trainer after retirement. This is a play well made about a life well-lived. Don’t miss it.