BWW Previews: TONI STONE at Laura Pels Theatre
Toni Stone was the first female to play professional baseball in a major American baseball league and she happened to be African American. Toni played for teams around the country including the fabled Negro League Baseball teams like the Kansas City Monarchs and the unlikely monikered Indianapolis Clowns. She is the subject of a new off-Broadway play by Lydia Diamond opening for previews beginning May 23 at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre just off Times Square.
The cast and the creative team for "Toni Stone" journeyed to Kansas City as part of their preparation for its first stage pitch and to experience the National Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in the historic 18th and Vine Jazz District. Present were Producer Samantha Barrie, Director Pam MacKinnon, Playwright Lydia Diamond, lead actor and Obie award winner April Matthis as Toni, three of eight male cast members and a room full of anxious charter school students excited to meet a gaggle of real New York actors.
Baseball was Toni Stone's passion in life and accounts have it that she was a great all-around player with a .243 lifetime batting average. The play portrays her as something of a savant when it comes to Baseball. When challenged in any aspect of her life, baseball was her safe space. One thing is certain. The team surrounding "Toni Stone (the play)" is composed of All-Stars. It is a passion project for all involved and especially so for Producer Samantha Barrie. Ms. Barrie has pushed for a stage version of Toni's story over most of a decade. The source material is "Curveball, The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone" by Martha Ackmann.
Playwright Lydia R. Diamond opens with Toni, the lead character, breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the audience. This is middle America in the early 1950s. The Major League Baseball color barrier has already been breached, but the Negro Leagues (full of quality players) continue to exist and will until the 1960s. Ms. Diamond has made the decision not to simply recite history, but to instead present scenes that demonstrate the challenges faced not only by Toni Stone as a female professional, but also by her teammates. Toni speaks to the audience in real time before dissolving into scenes that appear behind her.
Indianapolis Clowns owner, Syd Pollack, hired Toni Stone in replacement of Hank Aaron whose contract had been purchased for $10,000 by the Milwaukee Braves organization. Pollack was legitimately impressed with Toni, but she was also hired as the first woman to play for a major professional team sport. He reasoned that a female player would draw extra patrons to the stands.
The Negro League was a much different animal than today's Major League Baseball. In addition to being athletes, the players were expected to be entertainers. The Indianapolis Clowns had one player who played the role of "clown." The team put on a show of sorts between the fourth and fifth inning. Imagine the Harlem Globetrotters warm-up routine adapted for baseball.
In the early 1950s, the Negro Leagues teams barnstormed in addition to their scheduled seasons. They took on all comers including some teams with white major league players. Between games they traveled by bus and stayed and ate wherever they could in an era when signs still said "Whites Only." and were observed. The players were demeaned by Jim Crow laws.
Conditions for Toni were abominable. She rejected efforts to force opposing pitchers to go easy on her. She refused to sexy up her uniform as a woman, and she suffered generalized gender discrimination for being the first woman. Before her marriage, there was mild sexual harassment, but Toni wouldn't have any of that. Some players resented a woman who took up a team roster slot. Others resented her marriage.
The real "Toni Stone" retired from baseball in 1954 after a season of bench-warming with the Kansas City Monarchs. She and her husband re-located to the San Francisco Bay Area. Toni continued to play as a semi-professional in California before becoming a nurse and taking care of her husband until his passing at age 103.
"Toni Stone" is scheduled to run at the Laura Pels Theatre from May 23 through August 11. Previews run until June 19. The scheduled opening night for "Toni Stone" is June 20 and will be performed through August 11. Director Pam McKinnon is an Obie winner and the current producing artistic director for San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater.
Other announced cast members also include current Choir Boy star Jonathan Burke as Elzie, with Eric Berryman (The B-Side: Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons) as Stretch, Harvy Blanks (Jitney) as Alberga, Phillip James Brannon (Junk) as King Tut, Daniel J. Bryant (Broken Fences) as Spec, Toney Goins (Cymbeline) as Jimmy, Kenn E. Head (Monster) as Millie and Ezra Knight (Pretty Woman: The Musical) as Woody.
The production features scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez, lighting design by Allen Lee Hughes, costume design by Dede Ayite and original music/sound design by Daniel Baker and Aaron Meicht.