To a Bay Area that has two baseball teams long esteemed by tens of thousands comes the largely unknown story of a baseball pioneer and hero with local connections, a story of the first woman to play professional baseball on an all-male team. Lydia R. Diamond’s Toni Stone is a baseball lover’s dream while also unmasking the nightmarish sexism and racism the title character had to overcome in order to play professional baseball during the Jim Crow era of Negro League teams, with her playing first for the San Francisco Sea Lions in 1945 and then for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1953 (the latter tenure being the focus of the play).
Unfortunately, after only an opening night performance at American Conservatory Theatre, this important, invigorating, and inspiring play about Toni Stone must now close as part of California’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in a statement released Thursday, March 12, ACT announced the intent to allow ticket holders to watch in the near future a filmed, stage performance of Toni Stone “from the comfort of their home.” That there will still be a chance for thousands of theatre and baseball lovers to experience in at least a modified way Toni Stone sheds a bit of sunshine and hope on a world that is currently full of clouds and unease.
With eight men warming up behind her, Toni Stone steps forward in her Indianapolis Clown uniform to declare to us, “It is wound and small and fits right there in your hand … And it’s how it feels … like a tool … It feels like what … my hand’s wanted all along.” In her those intense eyes and a gloved hand ready to catch the next ball we immediately sense all the pride and passion she has about baseball. After all she declares, “We’re bringing you religion tonight.”
Watching her grip of the bat, her swings at unseen balls, and her fist constantly go into the glove with the pop of a caught ball, it is difficult not to believe Dawn Ursula has not spent as much time running around a baseball diamond as did the real Toni Stone she portrays. Her Toni is a whiz in rattling off baseball players’ statistics and histories at a clip fast and furious – especially anytime Toni runs into an obstacle in her pursuit of a life dedicated quite entirely to the game. Her speaking pattern is very exacting in every carefully pronounced syllable with her mouth working like a fine-tuned machine to enunciate her words. Dry humor is a natural for her (“I’m not a big talker; I talk a lot but not big”), and her stories have more curves in them than any ball heading to home plate ever has had (“I am prone to rambling”). But Toni is dead serious about her game, her proven athletic abilities, and her determination to play with “my boys” as one equal – and maybe better – than any of them.
Toni is not alone in being a hero on this team that has to endure on a daily basis the horrifically racist taunts from the white, redneck crowds who come not only to see them play baseball but also to be entertained. Even still in the early 1950s, that means a team whose name is “Clowns” must from time to time break away from their well-played game and break into a frenetic sequence of astounding body, foot, and hand movements (all coached by Danyon Davis). Their perfectly executed dance is combined with purposely big, toothy grins and ever higher jumps and side hops in order to mimic the minstrel shows so loved by whites for a hundred-plus years and so degrading to the blacks who performed them. A finale of Act One demonstration by the cast of such a so-called entertainment break by the nine is difficult to watch but impossible not to watch, difficult to enjoy but impossible not to admire the incredible display of the cast’s performance skills.
This is a team probably like all their Negro League counterparts whose entertainment wore off quickly whenever they dared to beat the white teams they sometimes played. As we see in a mad dash on stage, a late inning score to put the Clowns ahead is the signal for the entire team to race for their lives to a waiting bus whose engine is revved up and waiting for yet another narrow escape out of town.
In the course of telling her story, Toni introduces us to the guys on the team, each with unique personalities that both script and actors ensure we get to know. There is King Tut (JaBen Early) who is hired specifically as the team’s clown and who also has no problem cracking up his own teammates (and us) with a hilarious story about finding in a pantry his bent-over wife with a grocery delivery boy whose pants are down, all leading Tut to get a lifetime of dinners that combine all the best of all the year’s holiday foods. Daniel J. Bryant is the bookworm Spec who lectures the team about African American writers in between bragging about his small stature that carries his anything-but-small member between his legs. Pretty boy Elzie (Rodney Earl Jackson, Jr.) jocularly knows he is good-looking but what he does not want anyone else to know is what Toni has figured out about his sexual attraction. Stretch (Sean-Maurice Lynch) as the catcher seems appears totally in admirable tune with Toni and her skills while team star Woody (Jarrod Smith) is at best sullen and moody around her and at worst quick to try (rather unsuccessfully) to bully her, seeing her and her exceptional abilities as his chief rival on the team.
Most of the eight male teammates switch at one point to roles that may mean they are suddenly a loving woman in the arm of a hot baseball player (the she’s denoted usually by the upturned bill of a baseball cap) or perhaps the white owner of the team, an Irish-brogue priest, or a white kids’ team coach who befriends an eager onlooker/intruder who is a little black girl. (For the last scene, Dawn Ursula announces with a smirk, “I’m a little girl” before sequencing into a scene where she is vividly all legs and arms as a girl who only wants to play a boy’s sport.)
Along with the parts as teammates, two players take on new roles that become primary and exceptional. Ray Shell is an older Alberga who meets Toni one night in a bar and who persists with dogged stubbornness but always only with the gentlest of manners to follow and court an interested but overall reluctant Toni. Toni’s only woman friend is a madam of the night, Miss Millie (Kenn E. Head), who adopts the young Toni as her project to school in the ways of life and who pops magically into a variety of scenes to offer her unsolicited advice –lessons and pointers given with the biggest of hearts and based on a life that has so evidently been unimaginably difficult. In her lyrical, sliding-note words, the pain of that past and the courage to keep going all are vividly heard.
Through rows of field lights facing us as an audience and rows of metal stands along the perimeter, Riccardo Hernández recreates the feel of a small-town baseball field. Buses, bars, and beds all emerge from what we already see on the stage as bleachers. The sounds associated with baseball come both from actors’ own hands popping into gloves and the excellent sound design of Broken Chord. Allen Lee Hughes provides scene-setting lighting while Dede Ayite’s costume designs give us the Clowns’ authentic, period uniforms as well as the sometimes small, sometimes complete makeovers of ballplayers becoming other characters.
What keeps Toni Stone from being a complete homerun for me is that by Act Two, too many scenes begin to feel repetitive of those we have already seen; and new aspects of our hero not learned in Act One are few and far between. In fact,as I and my companion left Act One, we turned to each other and said, “I feel like we should leave; that was a complete and wonderful play just as it is.”
But even with a second half that can at times feel like it is dragging a bit, what keeps our undivided attention is Dawn Ursula’s Toni. She is nothing short than worth the price of the ticket – a ticket unfortunately no longer possible to obtain – and is certainly worthy of top consideration for this year’s, local acting awards.
Rating: 4 E
Toni Stone at American Conservatory Theatre has closed due to COVID-19. Watch for a possible, online edition of a live performance in the coming weeks.
Photo Credits: Kevin Berne