Review: Take Yourself Out to to the Huntington to See a Crackerjack TONI STONE

The production runs through June 16 at the Huntington Theatre

By: May. 28, 2024
Review: Take Yourself Out to to the Huntington to See a Crackerjack TONI STONE
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It’s baseball season in a baseball town, Red Sox caps are sprouting like spring flowers, and the Huntington is getting in on the act, too, with a crackerjack production of “Toni Stone,” a play about the first woman to play professional baseball on a men’s team, which will run through June 16 at the Huntington Theatre in its New England premiere.

The title character, Marcenia “Toni” Lyle Stone (1921–1996), joined the Negro League in the 1940s. She put up record-breaking stats while enduring a myriad of challenges including disrespect from male players, not being allowed to use the locker room, being put up in brothels during away games, gender bias, racism, and frequent physical abuse on the field, where she had replaced Hank Aaron when he moved up to the majors.

In this original play by Lydia R. Diamond – whose “Stick Fly,” “Smart People,” and “The Bluest Eye” have been produced at the Huntington in prior seasons – the story is inspired by Martha Ackmann’s book “The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, the First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League.” The play was commissioned by Roundabout Theatre Company and Samantha Barrie, and first produced by Roundabout off-Broadway at New York’s Laura Pels Theatre five years ago this month.

Diamond’s two-act treatment places the central character at center stage, and the gifted Jennifer Mogbock never drops the ball – bringing Toni Stone to vivid life in an enthralling performance that captures the character’s physical and emotional strength, warmth, indomitable spirit, and near singular focus. Her judgmental mother’s early urging that she try a “more suitable” sport, the rough-and-tumble of playing ball with men, and everything else that’s thrown at her only serve to make Stone stronger.

It is hard to take your eyes off of Mogbock. It takes more than one player to make a baseball team, though, and under Diamond’s pitch-perfect direction, the Indianapolis Clowns match Mogbock in energy and winningly deliver Diamond’s marvelously lyrical dialogue. The actors – Omar Robinson as Spec, Bobby Cius as Jimmy, Blake Morris as Stretch, Al’Jaleel McGhee as Woody, Ryan Vincent Anderson as King Tut, Anthony T. Goss as Elzie, and Olutayo Bosede as Rufus – make each of their characters uniquely compelling.

Several of the actors also play more than one role. Especially noteworthy in this regard are Omar Robinson, who captures the essence of Gabby Street, a white coach and manager who was Stone’s childhood idol and, for a brief time, benefactor, and Blake Morris who does double duty as hard-nosed team owner Syd Pollack.

Excellent scene work is also done by Jonathan Kitt as Stone’s much older boyfriend and later husband, Alberga, and Stanley Andrew Jackon as Millie, a prostitute who befriends the young ballplayer.

Rather than attempting to stage a baseball game, Diamond instead has the team moving along with the action, allowing the actors to blend athleticism with theatricality. The movement is enhanced by Ebony Williams’ terrific choreography and music by Lucas Clopton, especially on thought-provoking dance interludes which artfully drive home the point that Negro League players had to be more than just great at the game. They also had to entertain, often in minstrel-like fashion, hence the team name.

Collette Pollard’s impressive set design includes a timeworn ballpark complete with stadium lights that bring to mind the lure and lore of nearby Fenway Park. Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes evoke the 1940s–50s period. And the proceedings are enhanced at every turn by Brian J. Lilienthal’s excellent lighting design.

With “Toni Stone,” the Huntington concludes its splendid 2023–24 season – the first fully programmed by artistic director Loretta Greco – with an out-of-the-park home run that should have audiences counting the days until next season.

Photo caption: The cast of the Huntington production of “Toni Stone,” written and directed by Lydia R. Diamond. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.


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