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Chicago by John Olson

Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting
Lookingglass Theatre Company

Also see John's review of Come Fly Away

Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting
James Vincent Meredith, Ernest Perry, Jr., Anthony Fleming III, Javon Johnson and
Larry Neumann, Jr.

In this play by Ed Schmidt, a clandestine 1947 meeting is imagined between Jackie Robinson (the first African American to make baseball's major leagues), three African-American celebrities and Branch Rickey—the President and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who will elevate Robinson to the majors the next day. The three celebrity guests are legendary boxer Joe Louis, song and dance man Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and actor/singer/political activist Paul Robeson. In the program notes, Schmidt explains that an unreliable biography of Louis mentions such a meeting, but there's no supporting evidence that it ever took place. The supposed purpose of such a meeting was for the pioneering Robeson, Louis and Bill Robinson to warn and prepare Jackie Robinson for the hateful bigoted reactions he would face; but in reality, wouldn't the conversation have been more far-reaching and lively than that?

Schmidt's invented conversation is led, hijacked really, by the activist Robeson, who pictures consequences of Jackie Robinson's promotion far beyond the simple idea that progress is a good thing. Robeson asks the group what will happen to the Negro League teams (and the wealth of their owners, who include "Bojangles") once the Majors are fully integrated with the best players of the Negro Leagues? Should the best Negro players be integrated into existing teams or should there be Negro teams competing in the majors with the existing teams? Should the African-American athletes push for a bigger piece of the action than just being employees of the current power elite?

This makes for a fascinating and challenging discussion, to be sure, and Schmidt creates colorful characters around these historical figures, brought to life brilliantly by director J. Nicole Brooks and her cast. They execute Schmidt's alternately funny and explosive script, first produced at New Jersey's George Street Theater in 1989 and at San Diego's Old Globe in 1992, with perfect precision and timing. Leading off as Mr. Rickey is venerable Chicago character actor Larry Neumann, Jr. who's decked out in slicked back hair, horn-rimmed glasses and bow tie to be a dead ringer for Rickey. His Branch Rickey is a kind but cunning executive, clearly human with a sincere regard for his players, but fully aware and adept at the politics of baseball. He's first on stage, and his highly watchable, charismatic performance gets the action off to a fast start. Javon Johnson's Jackie Robinson is repressing his frustration at his long stint in the minors and afraid of waiting any longer for his break. Johnson shows Jackie's careful repression of his assertiveness to his inclination to play by the rules and respect the authority of those (i.e. Rickey) who are in power. We very much get from Johnson the sense that Jackie realizes he's on the verge of accomplishing something much bigger than himself.

The trio of surprise guests are led by Steppenwolf's James Vincent Meredith as the powerful Robeson. Meredith has all the stature and presence of a Shakespearean actor and someone who could take the difficult and uncompromising political stances that Robeson assumed. In fact, his power and fury are so substantial that Bojangles reminds him that "This ain't the Shubert, Shakespeare," a reference to Robeson's role in Othello on Broadway. As Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Ernest Perry, Jr. is a total delight, assuming Bojangles' persona when necessary to charm those around him, and twisting it into a tougher and earthier one than would ever have been visible to the public. He has many of the play's funniest lines. Anthony Fleming III is a weary Joe Louis, still enjoying some of the trappings of his fame but dealing with "other issues," which go unspoken but history shows them to be considerable tax debts. Completing the cast is Kevin Douglas as Clancy Hope, a teenage Roosevelt Hotel bellhop who happens on this historic meeting. The original version of the play was framed as Clancy's memoir. Though this device has been dropped from this production (with which Schmidt was involved), Clancy remains a major character, providing comic moments from his alternately awed and impudent attitudes. In total, this is a superb ensemble that performs as a team with major league skill.

All of this talent on stage—performing on a realistic set representing a guest room in New York's Roosevelt Hotel, circa 1947—is enough to overcome a dramatic arc that lacks sufficient tension. As Rickey tells Jackie of this upcoming meeting with Robeson, Louis and 'Bojangles' Robinson, he makes it clear that, while he is asking for their support of Jackie's promotion to the majors and will tell them that their approval is necessary to make it happen, he assures Jackie that his promotion will happen regardless of what the three say. Of course we know from history what will happen, so there's really no suspense. Regardless, the meeting is engrossing through its humor and rich characterizations as well as its nuanced discussion of racial politics. Even if the script is no more than a base hit, Brooks and her cast knock it out of the park with a superb ensemble performance by the six actors on stage.

Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting will play through February 19, 2012, at the Lookingglass Theatre Company, inside Chicago's historic Water Works at 821 N. Michigan. Ticket information is available at www.lookingglasstheatre.org.


Photo: Sean Williams

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-- John Olson



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