As spring training ramps up after another long winter without baseball, Toni Stone arrives at the Goodman Theatre to remind us of the sacred, soul-stirring qualities of America’s Pastime. But beyond a gorgeous set depicting an early 20th century ballpark, deft ball handling and poetic odes to what the weight of the baseball–or its absence–means to the hand of a committed player and devoted student of the game, this sometimes-searing play explores the terrible toll exacted on the nation’s Black ballplayers in the Negro Leagues and Major League Baseball.
Toni Stone is cited as the first woman to play professional baseball, and the play essays her season at second base with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League in 1953, not long after Hank Aaron left that position on the team to become one of MLB’s all-time greats. Played with intelligence, humor, warmth, anger and passion by the charismatic Tracey N. Bonner, Toni takes the audience on a bumpy ride through the transcendent highs and dispiriting lows of life for players in the Negro Leagues.
The pivotal scene in this Chicago premiere production of Lydia R. Diamond’s play, directed by Ron OJ Parson, comes at the close of the first act, when the players begin to entertain the crowd–clowning in the spirit of the Harlem Globetrotters–only to bare the torture and torment that lurks just below the surface of antics designed to please white fans who regularly taunt the team with racist epitaphs. It’s an astonishingly powerful moment, one that reminded me of the scene in Tracy Letts’ The Minutes in which members of a city council drop the pretense of genteel civic engagement in defense of the white supremacist roots of their small town. These two moments are cracked mirror images. In both, the masks drop to shocking effect, but the oppressed players of Toni Stone are only metaphorically freed of their public personas while the city council members flaunt their status as oppressors with impunity.
In addition to Bonner, the uniformly strong cast benefits from standout performances by Kai Ealy as King Tut, a masterful physical comedian who practiced in the minstrel style (which Ealy brings back to uncomfortable life as the show underscores the humiliations the players were forced to endure), and Jon Hudson Odom, who turns in a breathtaking and heartbreaking performance as Millie, the whorehouse madam who befriends Toni while claiming whatever clandestine freedoms she can secure. Toni’s scenes with Millie are some of the few where Toni can truly be herself. When she’s on the road with the men or being courted by the man who will become her husband (played with panache and pique by Chiké Johnson), it’s an open question whether it was harder for her to be a Black baseball player on the cusp of America’s Civil Rights era, or a woman trying to make a place for herself in a suffocatingly male-dominated world.
This play, and these actors, leave it all out on the field. The result is a profoundly moving night out at the ballpark.
(Disclosure: My wife is a member of the Goodman’s leadership team.)
Toni Stone runs through February 26 at the Goodman Theatre.
Photo by Liz Lauren