††††††††††††††††††††† By Ron Cohen
loved baseball. Now, you may ask, Who? Or so what? History, as oft said, has a
way of erasing the accomplishments of American women, and particularly, women
So, if you
need filling in, Toni Stone (1921-1996) was the first female professional
baseball player, playing during the 1950s with the Negro League. And whether or
not youíre a big fan of Americaís sport, the passion she feels for the game, as
depicted in the new Off-Broadway play whose title bears her name, is pretty
Or at least
deliciously understandableÖfrom the very start of the show. Thatís when Toni
appears before us, an unprepossessing, bright-faced figure wearing a baseball
uniform with the logo of the Indianapolis Clowns. She begins her story by
telling us how the baseball feels in her hand. ďIt fills what your hand was
without it,Ē she says.
evocative mood wonderfully marks the script by Lydia R. Diamond, based on the
book Curveball, the Remarkable Story of Toni Stone by Martha Ackman.
avoids a chronological template. Rather it skips about Toniís life in random
fashion but with a definite purpose, making things entertaining as well as importantly
informative. As Toni tells us early on, ďI am prone to ramblin. Never could
tell a story from beginning to end all nice and neat.† My brain donít work that
storytelling at times becomes a bit blurry, never in question is its
celebration of Toniís single-minded determination to play baseball, challenging
with forthrightness and gumption the barriers of racism and sexism that
blanketed 1950s America.
on dates and locales is pretty skimpy, but is hardly missed as chapters from
Toniís event-filled life are vividly recounted, along with the characters who
In what could
be a star-making performance, April Matthisís Toni is totally beguiling. She
imbues just about every word she utters with charm and authenticity. Her
descriptions of the indignities she sometimes suffered are recounted with a
captivating sense of innocence but unshakeable sense of self, devoid, though,
great assists are Matthisís eight male teammates, first introduced as Toniís
fellow players on the Indianapolis Clowns. While Toni actually played with
various teams, the play focuses on her playing with the Clowns.
narrative progresses, they artfully embody other figures in her life, regardless
of gender or race. (Costume designer Dede Ayite provides a suitable assortment
of wardrobe pieces to wear over the uniforms to help differentiate the
characters are Minnie (Kenn E. Head), who is Toniís closest female friend, and
Alberga (Harvy Blanks), an older businessman and behind-the-scenes politico who
is Toniís longtime companion and eventually her husband.
the roster are Eric Berryman, Phillip James Brannon, Daniel J. Bryant, Jonathan
Burke, Tony Goins and Ezra Knight.
In one of the
narrativeís many telling moments, we learn how Toni and Millie first meet.
Millie is a prostitute working in a brothel where Toni and some of her
teammates are forced to find a nightís shelter when the local hotel with its
Jim Crow regulations turns them away. The two become lifelong pals, Millie
helping to keep Toniís feminine side intact.
scene, we witness one of the exhibition games that Negro League teams
occasionally played against white teams. These were games the black teams were
supposed to lose. But in this particular game, as Toni says, ďyou just donít
have the lose in you.Ē So, after the final out with the Clowns grabbing a
victory, the players have to run to their bus to escape the angry mobs in the
episode is Toniís hiring by the white owner of the Clowns after seasons of
working as a fill-in with various teams. She is taken on with the idea that
being a woman she will be an additional attraction, playing second base as a
hopeful ploy to shore up attendance at the games. The racial assimilation going
on in Major League Baseball at the time was diminishing interest in the Negro
League. But as a condition of her hiring, Toni has to accept the fact that she
will be served up soft pitches to make her look good. Itís a condition Toni
objects to and eventually is dropped as Toni proves her mettle.
to the expertise of their ballplaying, the teams of the Negro League were
expected to provide a sort of vaudeville entertainment for their ticket buyers,
and thatís well suggested in the lively staging of director Pam MacKinnon,
along with a couple of energetic interludes choreographed by Camille A. Brown.
But just as
compelling are MacKinnonís handling of intimate dugout conversations and the
relationships entwining Toni with Millie and Alberga as well as her teammates.
The airy set
design by Riccardo Hernandez, marked by lighting designer Allen Lee Hughesí
banks of spotlights often punctuating the various episodes, capture the feel of
the ballpark. The atmosphere is further enlivened by the original music and
sound design of Broken Chord.
In times of
stress, Toni relieves her anxieties by reciting the statistics of her favorite
players. And there are plenty of those moments. She eventually has to face the jealous
rancor over her talents brewing in some of her teammates and the discomfort of
her husband with her professional comporting in the gritty male environment of
script, Toni takes a year away from baseball, devoting her time to Alberga, but
with the final fadeout, sheís back in the game. And youíre happy to see her
there. Play ball!
the Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 West 46th