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Toni Stone

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - June 20, 2019

Eric Berryman, Jonathan Burke, April Matthis,
Daniel J. Bryant, and Ezra Knight
Photo by Joan Marcus

Maybe I'm too stupid for Toni Stone. Lydia R. Diamond's bio-comedy-drama at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre is about what ought to be a fascinating subject, the first woman to play pro baseball in the Negro Leagues; is blessed with a reliable director, Pam MacKinnon; gets a crisp production, dominated by Riccardo Hernandez's formidable set, a bleacher grandstand in some Podunk town; and efficiently has its gifted cast of nine switching roles and viewpoints, while building up and tearing down the fourth wall. So why, for so much of Toni Stone's running time, am I sitting there going, and your point is?

It doesn't happen right away. Toni (April Matthis) gets an arresting opening monologue about the weight and shape of the ball, and her immediate kinship with it. Her mama wants her to bond with the pretty girls, "because I guess she thought some of the pretty would rub off on me;" she'd rather play ball. Toni's always having to prove herself — to her male teammates, the owners, her family — and there's a fair amount of drama inherent in that. But enter her colleagues on the Indianapolis Clowns, and the focus starts to evaporate.

We don't get to know these guys as well as we ought to. Most prominent are domineering Woody (Ezra Knight) and Stretch (Eric Berryman), the closest thing Toni has to a confidant. There's also Spec (Daniel J. Bryant), the team intellectual, and Elzie (Jonathan Burke), whose suspect sexuality provides a needless detour. The rest are nonentities, and the sense of time and place is loose indeed. The program says "1920s-50s," but that doesn't jibe neatly with the script references to Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron. Evidently Stone played professionally from the late '40s to the mid-'50s, but often you'll wonder just when and where we are. Diamond would do well to erect a few more cultural signposts.

Anyway, with the team introduced (sometimes they're the Clowns, sometimes they're a pickup team, but they always have the same names; it's confusing), MacKinnon — or Camille A. Brown, listed as choreographer — launches into a stylized balletic representation of baseball, which is lively but hasn't much to do with baseball. Then we're in Jack's Tavern, where the players hang and Toni is wooed and eventually won by Alberga (Harvy Blanks), a successful businessman and political operative; Blanks plays him with the requisite civility and dignity. From there, it's a real hodgepodge. We're on the road a lot, and frequently in a whorehouse outside Indianapolis where the guys seek shelter, and where Toni befriends Millie, quite beautifully played by Kenn E. Head, with convincing femininity and not a trace of condescension or caricature. She's the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold who helps Toni with womanly things, and the two ladies' heartfelt interactions are among the more diverting interludes.

Some interesting side journeys happen: exhibition games against white teams, with the expected racist jeers; Toni's successful second career in skating; a childhood coach of hers who turned out to be a KKK member; the Clowns' owner's conviction that Negro League baseball is more about entertainment (read: stereotypical clowning) than ability. But there's also lots of small talk, very small, and in the process, we don't really get to know Toni, or anybody, very well. She's strident and confident and defiant, and Matthis plays her with not much variety, just a lot of swagger. The nadir is the Act One curtain, a speech roughly about white perversion of black culture, followed by a couple of minutes of the cast just standing still and silent, representing . . . heaven knows what. Toni Stone is not MacKinnon's finest hour.

There's good baseball talk scattered throughout, particularly about the psychology of intimidating the opposition, and the cast, which also includes Toney Goins and Phillip James Brannon, is mostly swell; they're really wonderful at white-guy accents, from Irish priest to crass team owner. There's also Toni's occasional turn to the audience that helps us understand her a little better: She's a tomboy, but she's a woman, and she's conflicted about how much she must cater to wifely expectations and how hard she must fight to do the one thing she feels deepest in her bones, play ball. When confronted with unpleasant realities, she wanders off into reciting baseball stats. It's a cogent conflict, but it isn't much dramatized, not with Toni's monotone narrating most of the action at us.

Dede Ayite's costumes are just right (I especially like her not going overboard in dressing the men up in drag for the women's roles), Allen Lee Hughes's expressive lighting has one stunning moment when Stretch is driving the team bus and we see the headlights from another car reflected on him, and Broken Chord came up with some atmospheric original music and efficient sound design.

Toni Stone should be about empowerment and fighting the odds and being one's own person at all costs, and what baseball fan wouldn't like to know more about the Negro Leagues? That's all up there, but it's so muted. Diamond's rambling dramaturgy keeps bobbling the ball.

Toni Stone
Through August 11
Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street just west of Sixth Avenue
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