Editor’s note: In the wake of public health concerns, all remaining performances have been canceled, but patrons will receive information from American Conservatory Theater about how to access a recording they may view at home.
To explore the life, or a part of the life, of a heroic but little-known figure from recent history and make it stage-worthy, structurally intact and truthful, is a great challenge.
Lauded national playwright Lydia R. Diamond, who takes as her subject Toni Stone, the first woman to play baseball professionally with men (in the Negro League’s Indianapolis Clowns), is clearly up to that challenge.
So is American Conservatory Theater artistic director Pam MacKinnon, who directed the recent world premiere, based partly on Martha Ackmann’s book “Curveball: The Remarkable True Story of Toni Stone,” at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company before bringing it home to San Francisco in a coproduction with Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage. (Wednesday night’s press opening was the final live performance.)
It begins—and partially ends—with a paean to the exquisite sensation of holding a baseball. “The weight of the thing in the hand …” Stone (an absolutely brilliant Dawn Ursula) tells the audience. “This is what I need … what I know.”
She goes on to introduce, one by one, the other eight characters, all African-American, all male, who are players on the Indianapolis Clowns team (which lasted from the 1940s-80s and was known for entertaining antics that, as subversively depicted here, had racist overtones of minstrelsy). There’s the ladies’ man, the bookish one (who quotes W.E.B. DuBois to his unimpressed teammates), the jokester, the drunk. And, as it turns out, the closeted gay one.
The actors go on to play a variety of other roles, too: Toni’s mother (indicated by a dish towel stuck into a pocket), Toni’s eventual husband, Alberga (a warm Ray Shell), Toni’s best friend, a “working girl” (a wonderfully flamboyant Kenn E. Head in a dressing gown) and a few white men as well.
The ups and downs of Stone’s struggle to play baseball professionally during the racist Jim Crow era play out non-linearly.
They include: bits of her baseball-besotted childhood in the Twin Cities (“I’m a little girl!” she blithely informs the audience, hanging over a fence to watch Little Leaguers); the discomfort of being a woman—an uncompromising, fearless and forthright woman—in an often hostile environment; her awkward, unromantic courtship; and more.
There’s plenty of fast, funny and often confrontational dialogue in the dugout between Toni and “the boys” (“I can call them that. You can’t,” she warns the audience), and stylized movement (terrific choreography by Camille A. Brown) as well as the stories that chatterbox Toni tells to whoever will listen.
But those stories (and the surfeit of rapid, quasi-audible to the audience) banter among Toni and the players tend to bog down the first act. The meta-theatrical structure, the idiosyncratic characters, the across-the-board terrific acting and direction, are almost, but not quite, enough to make up for a sense of plotlessness.
But, thankfully, the second act is an intense and focused look at nothing less than a part of the mid-20th century American social fabric that resonates on many levels today.
Presented by American Conservatory Theater