BWW Review: Lydia R. Diamond's TONI STONE, Inspired By The Story of a Baseball Pioneer
From the epic poetry of Ernest Lawrence Thayer's "Casey At The Bat" to the sharp-edged vernacular of Ring Lardner's newspaper columns and the nostalgic innocence of Roger Kahn's "The Boys of Summer," baseball has been inspiring great literary flourishes for well over a century.
Perhaps it's the leisurely pace of the game, filled with pockets of silent strategizing that connect short spurts of action, that allows creative minds to wander and assess the belletristic potential of the competition before them.
Certainly, the best parts of Lydia R. Diamond's Toni Stone, based on Martha Ackmann's biography "Curveball, The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, the First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League," come at the beginning and end of the first act, where her words capture the lure of the game at its best and the ugliness at its worst.
"It's not the thing itself, it's the weight of it," the title character explains about holding a baseball. "It's how it feel, and how it fills what your hand was without it."
"It feels like what your hand, my hand, wanted all along."
As played by April Matthis in director Pam MacKinnon's production, Stone shares the stage with an ensemble of black male teammates who play multiple roles (including white and female characters) on designer Riccardo Hernandez's unit set of bleachers and stadium lights.
They wear the uniform of the Indianapolis Clowns, the most famous of the Negro League teams that would incorporate tricky ball handling and on-field minstrelsy to entertain audiences during games.
In another fine speech, Stone explains the certain psychology in action when skilled black athletes perform comic antics for a crowd full of white people who contribute to their systematic oppression.
"They laugh and give us a little bit of money so they keep laughing, but they know it's powerful and they know that we know what they doin' to us while we still steady makin' em laugh."
Neither of these passages appear in Ackmann's book, which is a rather straightforward chronological biography with over thirty pages of notes citing fact sources.
Conversely, Diamond has her central character inform the audience from the start that she "never could tell a story from beginning to end all nice and neat." So not only are there confusing moments where time skips back and forth, but important details are occasionally omitted that could mislead viewers about Toni Stone's history.
"You may have heard, I am the first woman to ever play professional ball," Stone suggests to the audience at the outset. What's never brought up in the play is that if you did hear that, you heard wrong. Professional women's baseball in this country goes back to barnstorming teams of the 1800s.
If the intention was to say that Stone was the first woman to play professional baseball with men, her statement disregards the career of Jackie Mitchell, who, after Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis nullified her contract with the Chattanooga Lookouts after one game, went on to become a star attraction with the popular House of David teams.
She was, as Ackmann describes, the first woman to play Negro League baseball, but Diamond's play gives the impression that her pro career began and ended with her one season playing 2nd base for the Clowns, which was the fourth of five Negro League uniforms she wore.
Up until 1947, when Jackie Robinson first took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Negro baseball teams were the most successful black-owned businesses in America, but the integration of Major League Baseball severely hit their box offices and led to their demise, since their most desirable players were getting signed by the white teams.
This important historic context of Toni Stone's career isn't mentioned in Diamond's play, and though she didn't join the Clowns until 1953, six years after the majors began integrating, the players speak of Robinson's breakthrough as if it's fresh news. (One player's remark that "white people think Jackie's best we got" seems out of place when you consider that by that time Willie Mays, Roy Campanella, Monte Irvin and Satchel Paige were all in the majors.)
The playwright does make it clear that the Clowns' white owner, Sydney Pollack (played as a hard-nosed businessman by Eric Berryman), was primarily interested in Stone to attract fans curious to see the "girl player" and that he asked the other owners to have their pitchers take it easy on her.
Choreographer Camille A. Brown has the cast moving like ballplayers, but a stylized segment meant to represent the type of comic bits the Clowns performed is more of a vaguely symbolic dance routine. (Click here for vintage footage of the Clowns' routines.)
Though Diamond's script describes Stone as "highly personable," MacKinnon has Matthis playing her with a humorless deadpan. She deals with stress by rattling off the statistics she's memorized from baseball cards. Gags are derived from how the innuendo of sexual remarks allude her and from her obliviousness to the flirtations of Auralious Alberga (deceptively courteous Harvy Blanks), the wealthy businessman, thirty years her senior, who starts showing his possessive side after they marry.
When the play jumps back to Stone's childhood, we see how an Irish-Catholic priest (Toney Goins) saw her potential and encouraged her to play ball, despite the objections of her mother (Ezra Knight), who preferred she engage in more ladylike pursuits.
Stone is generally depicted as having a healthy relationship with her teammates (signs of resentment and potential violence don't pop up until the second act) but her true confidant in the play is brothel madame Millie (a sensitive, respectful portrayal by Kenn E. Head), who allows her a free bed whenever the team's road schedule brings them her way.
Toni Stone's story is a unique and telling one in American culture. The strength of Diamond's play comes in the parallels she draws between the bouts with racism that bond the woman with her teammates and the sexist attitudes that separate them. But a clearer narrative is needed before Toni Stone proves worthy of its inspiring subject.