Belated Black Baseball Play Review: ‘Toni Stone’ West Coast Premiere at ACT

“I just felt baseball was a beautiful game, especially at night. The sun — I mean, you had the lights out there and all you do is go out there, and you’re out there by yourself in center field, and it’s just a beautiful game. And, I just felt that it was such a beautiful game that I just wanted to play it forever, you know.”
– Willie Mays, interviewed by the Academy of Achievement (19 February 1996)

*[NOTE: As I was completing the original version of this opening night review, the ACT released a statement (seen at this link) explaining that the show would prematurely end its run due to local shelter-in-place orders.]

Whoa… has it really been seven whole months since I first started typing up this review?

Sorry for the delay, but my Black skin and Black soul have been through a lot since then.

Hell, this seems to be an entirely different planet since then. When I showed up for this opening night performance (we were all given souvenir SF Sea Lions caps to prove we were there.), there was something of a feeling in the air that it would be the only performance – much like the last show reviewed on this site. Now, the ACT’s stages have been empty for so long they’ve had to close the Costume Shop for the first time in 37 years.

Toni Stone (Dawn Ursula) steps up to the plate while ‘Millie’ (Kenn E. Head) dispenses a heavy dose of reality. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

As theatre folk, we often joke about those shows in which there are more bodies on stage than in the audience. Well, Toni Stone took this a step further: Riccardo Hernández’s set is designed to resemble the bleachers of an old-fashioned ballpark. As such, the actors frequently sit, stand on, sleep on, and run around these bleachers over the course of the show’s 2 ½ hour runtime. But with a certain international pandemic running havoc, there were a lot of empty seats in the Geary Theater. Granted, that made social distancing easy, but the size of this crowd – which most black boxes would kill for – couldn’t help but look thin in an auditorium that large.

As it happens, I was seated across the aisle from a low-key Danny Glover, there to see his nephew perform. Mr. Glover was newly-returned to San Francisco, having just flown back from Michigan where he campaigned for Bernie Sanders (yup, it was that long ago, even though it was the same year). At one point during the first act, he snuck from his seat to slip into an empty one in the front row – there were plenty from him to choose.

I also saw a lot of Berkeley Rep staff in attendance, as well as the cast of their then-upcoming show School Girls; or The African Mean Girls Play. There were lots of hugs and handshakes to go around that night. I have the two SF Sea Lions caps (photographed below) to serve as reminders.

Yet, just one a month later, most small businesses – including performance venues – are struggling to stay afloat. A lot of them have already closed down permanently and the others are hanging on by a thread. They don’t have $150 million-a-month to burn the way LiveNation does. With the necessary federal financial protections go away from small businesses towards major corporations, plutocracy has been a bigger threat than COVID-19.

So why even bother finishing this belated review, let alone posting it? ACT’s livestream of that one opening night performance ended on April 5th. Almost every major theatre, including ACT and Berkeley Rep, called 2020 a wash and planned for their 2021 seasons. What could possibly be gained from me posted a belated review of a show no longer running?

Three reasons:

1 – this was the last show I saw live. With the exception of my recent journalism, I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like. Between writer’s block, not being on assignment, and simply not having anything I’m required to write (like a review), I find myself with a mountain of notes and half-written drafts, but few completed documents. Finishing this one will help with that. (I actually have recent shows that I’m also reviewing, but I have to finish this one first).

2 – folks like Lily Janiak have found a lot of things to write about lately, virus be damned. But, just as before, our artform/industry survives through diversity and variety. I may not have Lily’s credentials or reputation, but the reaction I’ve gotten to my writing – particularly over the last few years – lets me know just how important my opinion is considered. As that very industry/artform struggles through a pandemic made worse by a greedy PotUS who already cut our funding, the importance of an artistic voice means more now than ever before. And criticism is an important part of the artistic process.

Before Toni Stone’ (Dawn Ursula) can step up to the plate, she has to pay the bills working at a steel mill for an unenthusiastic ‘Supervisor’ (JaBen Early).
(Photo: Kevin Berne)

And 3 – this is a play about a Black woman whose name has been all-but-lost to history because no one wanted to speak about her seriously. As a Black artist and art critic, I don’t think I could live with myself if I let this interpretation of that story come and go without speaking on it. Especially not this year

Maybe no one will even read this review. Doesn’t matter. In addition to keeping my mind active, it serves as a subtle reminder that Black art and Black people – some of the hardest hit by the virus – should not be ignored, forgotten, or underestimated.

Now then… after that long-winded digression, I should probably talk about the play.

Yet, the above is actually in keeping with the play itself. The eponymous lead goes on a great many tangents. She’s aware that she has a short attention span, and the play frequently merges times and events into one another. This results in a storyline for which the word “narrative” can only be applied very loosely. Looking at my notes, I see that I described one such scene with the words “Tristam Shandy”.

It’s a double-edged sword for the production: I do believe that the show (written by Lydia R. Diamond and directed by ACT Artistic Director Pam McKinnon) does well in its portrayal of someone with the condition, particularly how they work an only-somewhat-reliable narrator. The problem is that by putting us in Toni’s shoes, mentally speaking, it’s incredibly exhausting. After a while, I just stopped trying to follow where we were in time because I wouldn’t be certain without a flowchart.

Having said that, there aren’t a lot of mainstream plays about Black female athletes who pioneered their roles as they dealt with misogyny and racism at the same time.

Not everyone is happy to have Toni (Dawn Ursula, centre) on the team, especially not Woody (Jarrod Smith, far right). (Photo: Kevin Berne)

It’s no surprise that most people have never heard of Toni Stone. In fact, it’s no surprise that most people have never heard of Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige. Just as most people have never heard of Civil Rights leaders who aren’t named “King” or “X”, so too does their knowledge of Negro League baseballers often begin and end with Jackie Robinson. That’s no fault of Robinson’s – he was a talented athlete whose professional baseball debut is still causing ripples decades later. But PoC often have their strides reduced to “the one”, so as to not take up too much history book space otherwise reserved for their White counterparts. If the PoC is a woman, then they’ll be lucky to be remembered at all.

Toni Stone had that very double-jeopardy working against her. Nevertheless, her time in the Negro Leagues made her the first woman to play professional baseball, something well-deserving of recognition. This inevitably led to a ceaseless barrage of racism and misogyny (the latter from both white and Black men) – something all too familiar for Black women of any recognition.

As such, one is grateful for this play’s illumination of the life of such a ground-breaking historical – one whose invaluable contributions have been erased by a white patriarchy. This is a story that needs to be told.

But – as I’ve mentioned before – just because a story covers an important topic doesn’t automatically make the story good. Mind you, Toni Stone isn’t bad, but it has three glaring problems working against it:

Jimmy (Marquis D. Gibson) takes Toni’s (Dawn Ursula) advice with a grain of salt. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

First, sports stories are hard to pull off for even the most seasoned and resourceful of theatre artists. Why, just last year the ACT staged The Great Leap, a basketball-themed play (also about PoC) in which no actual hoops are shot. Theatre commands us to suspend our disbelief, but that contradicts the mind of even the most casual fan of sports – you can’t just say someone is a great athlete, you have to see them in motion, scoring goals with your own naked eye.

Second, the play’s dedication to capturing the mental state of its eponymous lead is trying on one’s patience. This may have been worse for me because I was trying to follow the story and scribble notes simultaneously, but I challenge anyone who’s only seen the play once or twice to verbally recreate the scattered timeline from memory alone. I enjoy a fractured, experimental narrative as much as the next Megan Cohen fan, but one has to grasp onto something And it’s the play’s handling of time that leads to…

The third problem: much like Ain’t Too Proud (another Black woman-written play about important Black historical figures), so too does Toni Stone’s author have eyes bigger than her narrative stomach. In both plays, the authors don’t want to just put one of the subject’s life into the story, they want to put everything in. And in both cases, it doesn’t fit. There’s only so much of one’s life that can fit into a two-act narrative. Granted, Lydia Diamond doesn’t seem to short-change Toni Stone as much as Dominique Morisseau did the Temps, but that may be because most people don’t know Toni Stone. When the subject is unfamiliar, it’s hard to see all that was left out due to artistic license.

Having said that, the play is put together well by director McKinnon. Though Diamond’s script rarely slows down, McKinnon at least keeps the action moving naturally, even during the montage movement sections. It’s hard for me to recall performances I watched months ago, but I don’t recall being disappointed with anyone choices. In fact, I do recall being taken in by the child-like innocence that Dawn Ursula brought to the title role.

I can only imagine what someone like Toni Stone would make of the year 2020 – the year in which the World Series was played in ¾-empty stadiums because of a Spanish Flu-type illness decimating the population; a year in which Black people are still brutally murdered by the police as white politicians continue to pay lip service; a year in which more Black athletes than ever comfortable with speaking out and the klan is no longer necessary because armed whites shoot Black folks in the street without repercussion.

Every victory is a triumph for the Indianapolis Clowns. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

Toni Stone’s story should be a reminder of how far we’ve come. Instead, it’s further proof that nothing has really changed.

GRADE:                                                                           B

Toni Stone was scheduled to run until the 29th of March at ACT’s Geary Theater in San Francisco.
HOWEVER, COVID-19 concerns led to the cancellation of all further performances.
The show ran roughly 2 ½ hours with a single 15-min. intermission.
For further information about the production please visit the production’s official site here.

Categories: Theatre

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