Joey Stoshack has an amazing ability: he time-travels. Using an old baseball card, Joey whirls and twirls his way back into the past. In the case of Jackie And Me (playing at Children’s Theatre Company, through April 14), Joey visits Brooklyn in 1947, where the young, black, fiercely talented Jackie Robinson is being invited onto the roster of the major league Brooklyn Dodgers. Jackie will change the team, change Brooklyn, baseball – indeed, the whole world – forever.
Joey isn’t much of a time-traveler. He spouts anachronistic tell-tales willy-nilly: “Branch Rickey?” he shouts into the phone, “He’s dead!” “Game time? Check the website!” “Jackie’s gonna win rookie-of-the-year!”
Moreover, for reasons never made clear, lily-white Polish Joey becomes African-American when he lands in 1947. This confuses, but it does allow him to experience firsthand the humiliation of a Southern Jim Crow-style “whites only” drinking fountain, to be mistreated by the racist bat boy, to be taken into Jackie’s home.
Confusion aside, this is a grand story and Jackie And Me tells it nicely: the resentment Jackie inspires in his (mostly) southern teammates, his growing acceptance by them, his outsized talent, his amazing dignity. The info Joey gleans (for a school report) could easily be gotten from Wikipedia, but who cares, this is vital American history. On his way back to the present (and again for reasons unclear), Joey finds himself at the 1947 World Series where the Dodgers battle the despisèd Yankees. An aging (indeed, dying) Babe Ruth signs Joey’s baseball card – arguably the most thrilling moment in the play.
Actor Ansa Akyea physically resembles Jackie and for that reason alone he took my breath away every time he appeared. He plays Robinson simply, with a palpable presence and a passion tempered by humility and an over-riding love of baseball. He knows he’s been thrust into a position of great power. How does he cope? By having fun, i.e., stealing home repeatedly. Akyea has gotten, no doubt, plenty of help from director Marion McClinton who, as is his wonderful wont, draws first rate performances from his cast.
Brandon Brooks gives us a sweet spunky Joey, functioning as a breezy and charming (okay, if occasionally obnoxious) narrator. As the loveable cigar-chomping Branch Rickey (and later as Babe Ruth), James Ramlet is crusty, powerful and determined. Terrific. Kudos to CTC performing apprentice Dot McDonald as Mrs. Robinson and as the teacher. Spencer Harrison Levin breathes compelling life into the character of Ant, making this ignorant racist punk really come alive. Here is a young man with presence and charisma to burn.
Jackie And Me is adapted by the estimable Steven Dietz from a book by Dan Gutman (who has written a lengthy series about the time-traveling Stoshack: Ted, Roberto, Babe, Satch, Shoeless Joe, etc, And Me). The play revisits territory developed in Honus And Me.
21st century children are inundated with stories about the struggle of civil rights pioneers like Robinson, Rosa Parks, the young Martin Luther King, et al. It’s easy for an aging writer like me, who lived through the era, to resent the simplistic “past-tenseness” of plays like Jackie And Me: we used to have a problem; we don’t any more. For the kids in CTC’s audience, this is ancient history. Which is as it should be. Children need to be reminded, and often, that the rights they take for granted were fought for, by real heroes, men and women who deserve to be celebrated. Jackie And Me does this.
Next up at CTC: Alice In Wonderland, opening April 30.
For more information about John Olive, visit his website.