Thursday, June 20, 2019

34 (2019-2020): Review: TONI STONE (seen June 14, 2019)

“A Quality Start”

Toni Stone (born Marcenia Lyle Stone in St. Paul, Minnesota; 1921-1996), the first woman to play with men in organized baseball, played on a variety of levels from the 1930s through the early 1950s. She pitched as a teenager but her adult career was as an infielder. Regardless, Lydia R. Diamond’s fascinating new eponymous play about a largely forgotten pioneer could well be described by the pitching term of “quality start.”

Wikipedia says a quality start is “a statistic for a starting pitcher defined as a game in which the pitcher completes at least six innings and permits no more than three earned runs.” Thus, Toni Stone, based on Martha Ackerman’s book Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, is neither a perfect game nor a grand slam but it’s a good enough revelation of a pathbreaking athlete and her times to qualify as a quality start, pitcher or no. (It also happens to be the second Toni Stone play, Roger Nieboer's Tomboy Toni having been produced at St. Paul's History Theater in 1996.)

The two-act play, which runs around two hours and ten minutes, is overlong, like a game that goes into extra innings but, for most of its duration, Pam McKinnon’s imaginative staging, supplemented by the incisive choreography of Camille A. Brown, keeps the ball spinning and the actors moving, with considerable baseball-like business: mimed ball-throwing and catching, bat swinging (and accompanying sound effects), and so on. Baseball implements, like catcher's masks, are used for multiple purposes. Often, someone playing an umpire adds emphasis by calling strikes. 

It helps greatly that McKinnon and Brown’s team of nine African-American players is of major league-level acting ability, most of them playing a single position (“character,” I should say), with occasional shifts to someone else (including white folks). 
When necessary to suggest another character, an actor will usually hint at the change by donning a symbolic item of clothing, even to play a woman; in one gender flipping portrayal, though, Kenn E. Head, playing Millie, a female friend of Toni’s, does it in full drag, but seriously and not for laughs. (The excellent costumes are by Dede Ayite.) April Matthis, playing Toni in a memorable, award-level performance, is the only actual woman in the company. (She took over the role from Uzo Aduba last year when the latter left because of a scheduling conflict.)

Diamond’s approach is metatheatrical, as Toni Stone (1921-1996), slides through her autobiographical tale, both narrating to us and interacting with the other players in highlight moments from her story. With a couple of exceptions, everyone continues wearing the baseball uniforms of the Indianapolis Clowns, an important team in the Negro American League.

Stone, who’d been playing with semipro teams, including barnstorming ones, joined the Clowns (replacing Hank Aaron, of all players!) when she was 32, in 1953. It was this job that broke the barrier against mainstream, female pros, although she still had to deal with a lack of respect for her abilities and too great an emphasis on her gender. 

(Her accomplishment, by the way, isn't to be confused with that of the women who played for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, founded in 1948 exclusively for female players. It was the inspiration for the movie A League of Their Own.)
The action takes place during the mid-20th-century years when major league baseball was transitioning from all-white teams to the inclusion of black players, beginning with Jackie Robinson, who is often mentioned in the dialogue. This revolutionary situation, of course, signaled the imminent end of the Negro Leagues and is likely responsible for allowing the door to open enough so that a female player could slip in (there would be two more afterward).

The play’s baseball players appear to be a jumble of reality and fiction. King Tut (Phillip James Brannon) and Jimmy Wilkes, were actual people. The former is depicted as a capable player while the real person of that name, a.k.a. “the clown prince of baseball,” is said to have had only seven plate appearances in his career, his three decades in the game being primarily as a comedian.

Spec Beebop [sic] (Daniel J. Bryant), another baseball funmaker, who teamed up with Tut, was a nonplaying dwarf (his name spelled Bebop, not Beebop); in Toni Stone he’s a short, overweight, bespectacled athlete with a professorial bent, who jokes about his substantial male endowment. (Al Schact, of course, was the “clown prince” of major league baseball.)

I’m unable to verify the existence of player-coach Woody Bush (Ezra Knight), whose name doesn’t appear in this alphabetical list of Negro League players, which is also the case with Elzie Marshall (Jonathan Burke), the handsome guy whose ladies man-attitude Toni sees through as a subterfuge for his homosexuality.
The core of Toni Stone concerns the obstacles put in the way of a black female athlete who played as well as any male but who had to go to great lengths to prove she could do so with them on the same field. She had to battle sexist attitudes from owners and teammates, who often saw her more as a publicity stunt than as a viable player. At the same time, like her male teammates, she also had to battle the period’s virulent racism, which the play doesn’t hesitate to present.

Toni is smart, quick-witted, and resistant to guff, but good-natured and confident, as prone to profanity as her teammates, and anything but a victim. When needing to take refuge from slings and arrows, she retreats into a recital of the statistics of the players—black and white—of the day and shortly before, as references to the likes of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth attest. For some reason, however, no years are cited to clarify the statistics cited. The play presents Toni as remarkably well-versed in baseball stats but stumped by typical classroom mathematics. (It’s not mentioned but Toni’s two-year Negro Leagues career—including a season with the Kansas City Monarchs—ended with a batting average of .243.)

Matthis’s performance delivers on every count, being both personable, formidable, and funny. She’s emotionally and intellectually pointed that you forgive her for lacking the physical stature of a professional ballplayer, or for the slight hitch in her swing when she handles a bat.

Toni Stone delves into the biographical weeds of its subject, introducing not only Toni Stone’s mother; her Irish Catholic priest; Syd Pollock, the white owner of the Clowns; Millie, the prostitute who became her close friend (Toni sometimes having had to sleep at brothels when nowhere else was available in Jim Crow towns), and one-time star catcher and later baseball mentor, Gabby Street. 
Of considerable importance is the four decades-older, San Francisco-politician/saloon owner Auralious Alberga (Harry Blanks), who falls in love with and marries her, but eventually has second thoughts about his wife being a professional ballplayer.

Toni Stone is enacted on a set (designed by Riccardo Hernandez) whose upper reaches are lined with large, stadium-style lights (effectively used by designer Allen Lee Hughes), and whose acting area is a dirt-colored wooden floor backed by low, bleacher type seats. Strangely, no green is present in the scheme.

Whether or not Toni Stone wins any pennants, it comes close enough to hitting it out of the park to make it an early season contender.  

Laura Pels Theatre/Roundabout Theatre Company
111 W. 46th St., NYC
Through August 11