Lydia R. Diamond’s Toni Stone is a living, breathing woman. The high craft of this play shows itself not only in making the zen/poetry of (1950s) baseball and team camaraderie readily accessible, but by integrating national mores/politics on a human scale. Simplifying information – we meet the player before, during, and after her third team, The Indianapolis Clowns, for example – character and context take center ring. That we never know precisely where or when we are quickly becomes unimportant. The piece moves forward, things change, company is excellent.
Apparently much was presumed as scant audio and only Martha Ackmann’s book, Curveball, the Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, exist to testify to what Stone was like. The playwright conjures her as stubborn, practical, direct, dignified, and rather innocent. With the help of an extraordinary performance by April Matthis, we buy every minute. Erupting in baseball statistics when she’s nervous is completely credible; experiencing a romance for perhaps the first time, quirky and tender. This is the kind of memorable inhabiting that easily allows us to imagine a personage walking off stage into real life.
By all reports a tomboy, Stone started playing ball with church clubs in West Virginia at the age of ten. Like any kid who finds something at which they are particularly good, dedication blossomed, in this case, into a calling. We see ingenuous persistence and unexpected comprehension help her break into the male stronghold. A semi-professional job, then barnstorming exhibition games followed. The second baseman startles peers with integrity and skill.
Toni Stone was the first woman to play professional baseball in The Negro League and the only female on her teams. Things were undoubtedly less copacetic than depicted here. Men minimized and mocked the young woman resenting her presence. Diamond sketches racism (we hear a few uncomfortable slurs) and nods at sexism. Explicitness is sufficient to comprehend earning player respect and standing ground with management. A deft arc shows gradual acceptance and even affection.
Two outside characters help define the heroine, a wise, wry Madame named Millie (Kenn E. Head, in and out of a dress), with whom she becomes friends when the touring team is housed for lack of an integrated hotel, and the sympathetic, gentlemanly Alberga (Harvey Blanks), a businessman who courts and eventually marries her against all odds. Neither person feels manufactured. Both actors are terrific, seamlessly morphing from these sensitive roles back into teammates.
In fact, there’s not a weak link in a company of men who have clearly constructed whole personalities for themselves. Watching any one when they’re all moving is a pleasure.
Director Pam MacKinnon presents every actor on stage with their own specific character traits whether speaking, playing, or simply looking out at us. Focus and timing are impeccable. When men play women, they do so with respect and nuance – no camp here. When they play white characters, a hand is passed over a face from which remarkably different accents emerge. (Matthis’ accent is also pitch perfect.)
Though warm-ups etc. may not be athletically correct, they serve the piece with energy and attitude. Depiction of being on the field is adroitly managed with running around the stage and sound effects. Overall warmth is palpable; eliminating the fourth wall beautifully handled as Matthis looks directly into audience eyes.
Tony Winner Camille A. Brown (Choir Boy) is on a roll. Distinctive, rhythmic choreography maintains signature synchronicity while integrating baseball and character moves. Tableaux Vivants (freeze frames) are painterly.
Ricardo Hernandez’ minimal set does the job evocatively in collaboration with Allen Lee Hughes’ surprisingly responsive lighting design.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: April Matthis as Toni Stone
Toni Stone by Lydia R. Diamond
Based on Curveball, The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone by Martha Ackmann
Directed by Pam MacKinnon
Laura Pels Theatre – Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 West 46 Street
Through August 11, 2019