The only negative thing I can report about StageOne's latest play, a baseball story turned history and humanity lesson about #42 Jackie Robinson titled "Jackie and Me," is that you only have one day to see it—February 23 at 2:00 or 5:00 pm at The Kentucky Center. Of course, if your child is one of the 20,000 schoolchildren who will see it on a field trip this February (which is also Black History Month), then consider yourself lucky. But if no such field trip has been planned and you have either a history buff or a baseball fan in your family, I highly recommend making plans to attend the 75-minute play on February 23.
As "Jackie and Me" begins, we meet Joey Stoshack, a young modern-day baseball fanatic who is teased on the diamond because of his Polish heritage. Add to his failures on the field a difficult relationship between his separated mom and dad, a tough history assignment at school, and the fact that he's a hothead who keeps losing his temper, and you have a very recognizable character. Elementary-age theatergoers will immediately relate to him.
But despite his frustrations and poor anger management, Joey has one special gift: he can time travel. The audience can suspend belief a bit here, in much the same way as you could when watching Michael J. Fox travel back in time in the "Back to the Future" movies. You just go with it.
So baseball-obsessed Joey picks Jackie Robinson off the list of approved subjects for the Black History Month report. The oldtimer who owns the baseball card shop—Brooklyn-bred Flip—loans Joey a Jackie Robinson baseball card, and off Joey goes, back in time, landing in the 1947 office of Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey on the day he signs Robinson as the first black player in the majors.
In a multitasking cast of only eight actors, it's difficult not to highlight each one, but Paul Kerr (last seen by schoolchildren as the Hairy Man in "Wiley and the Hairy Man") absolutely shines as Rickey, embodying a larger-than-life postwar personality who not only challenged Robinson to excel on the field, but expected him to show restraint, integrity, persistence, and courage as he broke the color barrier in major league baseball.
The play, based on the book by Dan Gutman, smoothly transports the audience to the segregated 1940s, when white players asked to be released or traded rather than play with Robinson (despite his obvious skill) and when he received more hate mail (or death threats) than fan mail. When Joey meets Jackie in 1947--eight years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and sixteen years before Dr. King’s "I Have a Dream" speech--he learns firsthand, through another plot twist, the racial injustice that Robinson battled each time he took to the field. He also learns that Robinson, like himself, was a hothead with a vicious temper. But after shadowing him for a few days, Joey begins to understand the virtues that helped Robinson transcend sports to become an actual American hero. Plus, he gets great inside scoop for his history report.
Louisvillians will especially like the shout-out they receive when baseball great Pee Wee Reese takes the stage. The Brooklyn Dodger is lauded for his defense of and friendship with Robinson, which struck an even more symbolic tone because he was a white Southerner unafraid of showing loyalty to his black teammate. A now iconic exchange between the two friends during a particularly heated ballgame in Cincinnati—amidst heckling and jeers, Reese walks over to Robinson and puts his arm around him in a show of solidarity—has been immortalized in a sculpture in Brooklyn.
After learning about Louisville's hometown baseball hero, my son did a quick Google search and found loads of information and poignant photos charting Reese’s legendary friendship with Robinson. He also found a reissued Jackie Robinson baseball card, and since the play, it's been a nonstop sports and history lesson around our house. And isn't that the point of great theater? To inspire and educate, as well as to entertain? "Jackie and Me" certainly succeeds in all three goals, and would be a homerun for kids over age eight to enjoy with a parent or grandparent.
For a really special night, consider the Home Run Family Event hosted by StageOne and The Louisville Slugger Museum. For $50, you will enjoy the 5:00 performance of "Jackie and Me" and a private party at the museum featuring tours, activities, silent auction, and a baseball themed menu. Make your reservations with Pamela at 498-2444 or at www.stageone.org.
For regular admission, purchase tickets at $19.75 by calling 584-7777, going to the Kentucky Center box office drive-thru at 501 W. Main Street, or visiting www.kentuckycenter.org.
Photos: courtesy of StageOne