After last year, when Major League Baseball players took the field facing empty stands, this season the sport slowly recovered and is now in full swing. Battles are on in the east and west to decide which teams will make it to the playoffs and, ultimately, the World Series. So what better time to stage a play that focuses on someone – a young Black woman, to be exact – who defied all the odds and created her own pathway in this male-dominated sport? In the 1950s, Toni Stone became the only woman to play for the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro Leagues, which also made her the first woman to play in a professional men’s league. Based on Martha Ackmann’s book, Curveball, the Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, the play premiered in 2019 at New York’s Roundabout Theater. (See the review.) On September 3, the play will return to Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage where it was once workshopped.
Pam MacKinnon, who won Tony and Drama Desk Awards for directing Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, has been with Toni Stone for nine years, directing the Roundabout production, as well as one in San Francisco that was cut short because of the pandemic. “It only had five previews and an opening night and then we had to close it [in March, 2020],” she said. “So for me, as well as for some of the actors who did it there, it really bookends these 18 months. And we’re coming at it with a lot of energy. I feel honored we are reopening in-person theater in Arena with this amazing story.”
MacKinnon first learned about Toni Stone when she was approached by the producer Samantha Barrie who had just optioned Ackmann’s book. She asked MacKinnon whether Toni’s story could be a play. “I read it and It was a page turner,” MacKinnon said. Like Toni Stone, who grew up in the Twin Cities, MacKinnon is from the Midwest. While not an athlete like Stone, MacKinnon said she was always drawn to team activities. “I was in the orchestra, theater, obviously, and those kinds of group activities made me lean in,” she said. “I consumed a lot of sports as a spectator and so sports have been in my life.” Stone’s story resonated on another level. “As a woman, as someone who knew who she was and unapologetically demanded that the world catch up to who she wanted and needed to be, that was compelling,” she said.
For a playwright, MacKinnon approached Lydia R. Diamond whose play, Stick Fly, she had seen on Broadway. “I thought she would be a fantastic collaborator to bring this story to life,” she explained. The first thing to “land on the page” was the opening monologue which, MacKinnon said, hasn’t changed much in eight years. “Lydia discovered the spine of the play through Toni’s completion of herself as a baseball player, with that baseball in her hand,” she said. “And then it went from there.”
Santoya Fields as Toni Stone (Photo by Tony Powell)
Stone’s story does not unfold in a linear fashion, but jumps around in time. “It’s very much an exploration of how Lydia imagines this particular woman’s mind works,” MacKinnon said. “She can be as present as a narrator in the theater with the audience, as she can step back into a memory with her mother, as she can be in a dugout razzing with the teammates, as she can on the ball field. So it goes back and forth.”
Santoya Fields will make her Arena debut as Stone. A teaching artist and actor, her credits include: School Girls; or the African Mean Girls Play (Berkeley Repertory Theater); Men on Boats (American Conservatory Theater); Black Odyssey (California Shakespeare Theater); and, White (Shotgun Players). For her performance in White, Fields was nominated for two theater awards.
MacKinnon said that Fields’ performance will be different from that of April Matthis who played Stone in the Roundabout production. “It will be very different because she’s a different woman,” she said. “I’m now the artistic director at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and I directed a production of this out there with the fantastic D.C. based actor Dawn Ursula, who was very different from April Matthis as well. So this is, in a full production, my third Toni Stone, but there have been a lot of Toni Stones through workshops as well, and every woman brings herself the way an actor does.”
What is the core of Toni Stone? MacKinnon said there’s something unapologetic about Stone. “She takes up space, she knows who she is,” she said. “She doesn’t flirt and doesn’t go at things sideways. She goes at things straight on.”
All the other actors in the play are male. “When Lydia was writing the play, she decided pretty early on that Toni, the real person, and, therefore, the person who had to be at the center of this production, lived a lot of her life in the world of men, whether that’s on the the ball fields, in the team bus, or in the team dugout,” said MacKinnon. “But she also frequented a tavern in San Francisco called Jack’s and that was also largely a place where men hung out. So Lydia wanted that represented clearly on the stage that that was the world that she navigated. All the actors in the play play other roles and some of them, in addition to the team players, do play women.”
Through dialogue and action, the play shows the obstacles Stone was forced to navigate as a woman in a male-dominated environment. “She had lots of encounters that made her uncomfortable. Lots!,” she said, as a woman, and as a Black woman.
In the Negro Leagues, the Indianapolis Clowns, not only would play baseball, but there was also going to be some clowning in any given game, MacKinnon explained. That made choreography for the play important. Choreographer Camille Brown, who received raves for her work on the Roundabout production, will repeat that role at Arena, along with her associate, Jay Staten. “Camille was interested in exploring the American history in dance, really centering around the minstrel show,” MacKinnon said. “She brings that into this.”
During the play’s run in New York, MacKinnon, along with Matthis and Diamond, made a visit to the New York Mets, spending time with some of the players. “It was great,” MacKinnon said.
In Washington, Arena will partner with Nationals Park to host a live simulcast of the play at 7:30 p.m., Sunday, September 26, that will be broadcast to the center field video board at the ballpark for thousands to see. Tickets are free and must be reserved.
Why is it important that this play is seen in Washington at this time? “It’s a city of baseball, it’s a Black American city,” MacKinnon said. “This is very much a Black American play and Toni Stone should be known.”
From September 3 through October 3, 2021
Top photo: Director Pam MacKinnon. Photo credit: Kevin Berne.