In this culture of readers and series bingers, most of us have a general notion of what constitutes a vivid character. Behavioral quirks, inner conflicts, a distinctive look, special skills – these ingredients separate Sherlock Holmes from, say, whatever the lead role was in Neil LaBute’s last piece. (I don’t find his people particularly distinctive.) When all the cylinders are firing, a great new character springs to life and embeds itself in the imagination. In the theater, of course, you need an actor to complete the circuit. Case in point: The historical sports drama Toni Stone, in which playwright Lydia R. Diamond sketches a jaunty bioplay about the first woman – and the first African American woman – ever to play in professional-league baseball. There’s no doubt about it: What Toni Stone did is remarkable. But who was she, apart from her athletic trailblazing? That’s a trickier question, and it’s where April Matthis comes in. This extraordinary performer, whom I’ve admired for years in downtown work, adds her inimitable spark and mystery to an elusive historical figure, and the result is absolute magic.
Matthis has a long association with the experimental troupe Elevator Repair Service, a group that repurposes found text (or classic novels such as The Great Gatsby) in whimsical, design-dense deconstructions. She’s well schooled in non-naturalistic techniques: deadening text for effect; hovering in the charged airspace between actor and role; and establishing a neutral, even adversarial relationship with the audience. These practices, added to Matthis’ already wryly detached charm, make her the perfect vessel for Toni Stone. The ballplayer – as conceived by Diamond, Matthis and director Pam MacKinnon – seems to be what today we call “on the spectrum.” She’s a savant of the outfield, with reams of statistics memorized, facts that she murmurs hurriedly to herself when stressed or scared. Toni wears men’s clothing when she goes to a bar, and she’s unfazed (at first) about being the only woman on a team, but if you assume that she’s trans or a lesbian, you’re wrong. If anything, Toni comes across as asexual, although she eventually allows herself to be romanced by – and falls for – the older businessman and political organizer Alberga (Harvy Blanks) and has an intimate friendship with the prostitute Millie (Kenn E. Head). Mainly, Toni is itching to play. She finds people a little strange and unreliable, but when the stitched orb is in her hand, the universe makes sense.
Diamond builds the story as part history lesson, part winsome two hours inside Toni’s head, as she narrates the course of her life, sometimes matter-of-factly, sometimes with a glint in her eye (when it comes to statistics and plays.) The eight-man supporting ensemble hustles adroitly as Toni’s team members on the Indianapolis Clowns (a Negro League team that required its members not only to play but put on minstrel-like entertainments for the crowd) and as every other character – white or female. In terms of plot, the script mostly moves forward, as Toni joins the Clowns, negotiates her salary with the team’s exploitative white owner, Pollack (Eric Berryman), and negotiates life on the road with a bunch of men who can be rude, quarrelsome or just downright smelly. (In one pungent bit, Toni notes, “Nothing is more foul than the sweat of men what you annoyed with, and by end of the week, the smells mix and steam and stick to you, and it’s just gone get worse. You like to lose your mind.”) Her team members are brought to life with nuance and wit by the outstanding ensemble, including Phillip James Brannon as the brooding, disillusioned King Tut; Ezra Knight as dangerously resentful Woody; and Jonathan Burke as Elzie, the team’s handsomest player, and a man hiding his true nature. The games themselves – complete with vicious racist heckling from white spectators – are vividly rendered in choreographic shorthand (by Camille A. Brown) making full use of the actors’ smooth, confident physicality.
All design elements contribute smartly to the iconography and romance of the sport: modular bleachers on a minimalist set (Riccardo Hernandez); huge, angled banks of stadium lights (Allen Lee Hughes); Broken Chord’s crisp leather-on-maple pocks; and of course, snappy uniforms and quick-change accessories by Dede Ayite. If Diamond’s play stumbles a bit, it’s in the second half, as she tries to maintain tension in the drama of Toni’s life, which isn’t exactly brimming with dramatic incident. After you’ve explored the racism and sexism our wise yet guileless hero faced down, you’re left with Wikipedia details: She got on the team, played well, got married, and eventually retired after five years in pro. At any rate, the presentation is strong. MacKinnon’s staging is a model of deft transitions and tonal shifts. Matthis commands the stage with easygoing grace and wit. Together, they ensure you never take your eye off the ball.
David Cote is a theater critic, playwright and opera librettist based in New York City.