Regional Reviews: Chicago
Whatever the shortcomings of the second act, it's clear that Diamond came away from Martha Ackmann's "Curveball, The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone" with not only a sense of this extraordinary woman that was quite precise, but also with a clear vision of how to contextualize that story and translate it to the stage. Although the playwright clearly leaves much to the discretion of the director and cast, it is equally obvious that she insists on the broad strokes vital to documenting and bearing witness to the triumphs and indignities suffered by Toni and Negro League players more broadly as they carved out a place for themselves in the game that was their passion.
The combination of Todd Rosenthal's set, Mike Tutaj's projections, and Keith Parham's lighting design places the audience within the confines of the diamond itself. The stage is more or less realistically set with a home plate, bleachers, and a projected scoreboard upstage center, the team's dugout along the first-base line (stage right), and a dive called Jack's, where Toni meets her eventual husband Alberga, along the third-base line, replaced by a scarred, faded Doublemint gum ad on a low brick wall when the tavern's two stools and swing-out bar top are tucked away. Although the set is attractive and immersive, there's quite a bit of real-estate devoted to bleachers rising above the dugout and the third-base wall. This space is rarely used and the main stage area feels occasionally crowded, particularly during the team's performances.
Tutaj's projections shift to faded velvet curtains or Jack's neon sign or to the front of a neat, respectable house to signal that the action has moved off the field–and sometimes back in time to Toni's childhood–but they are at their most spectacular when they are coordinated with the actors' movements and Andre Pluess' sharp sound design to bring the game to life.
Mara Blumenfeld's costume design captures the vintage uniforms of the Indianapolis Clowns beautifully, and by Diamond's specifications, the uniforms are ever present. Toni, when she is off the field, slips on a men's suit jacket and hat. As the actors who primarily depict her teammates shift into other roles, often changing genders, races or ages, the change is signaled by the simple addition of a jacket, tie, a headband, or some other subtle visual cue. This serves to filter everything in the play through the lens of Toni's laser-focused passion for the game, despite the fact that by her own admission, she "Never could tell a story from beginning to end all nice and neat."
In keeping with this facet of Toni's character, Act I travels back and forth in time and from nowhere town to nowhere town as she convinces her mother to let her play ball, and as she hustles to get fill-in games under her belt. In this act, the dialogue and action fluidly and skillfully flesh out each of the players–from the bookish yet randy Spec to the talented, embittered Woody, and King Tut, the team's legendary showman. They discuss Jackie Robinson's journey over the colored line, their confidence in their own elite skills, and the act ultimately ends with the team, as a body, stepping in to perform on a day when King is too worn down to play his usual role. The clownish dance, punctuated by Toni's stark narration of its subtext, turns wild and rageful–a stunning end to a tight, skillfully written and executed act.
This climax follows developments on the personal front for Toni. Through her relationship with Millie, one of the ladies at Madame Mamie's Gentleman's Club, the literal, non-romantic Toni navigates the advances of the smooth, older, politically connected Alberga who ultimately proposes marriage two her. Act II then focuses on Toni's balancing act as she finally joins the Clowns as a regular player and accepts her feelings for Alberga. The second half of the script is still very good, but the first half is so exceptional that "very good" is a bit of a let down.
The ending feels particularly rushed and somewhat unsatisfying. Woody focuses his bitter disappointment on Toni and translates it abruptly into intense threats of sexual violence. Alberga responds in a quiet, menacing way, claiming ownership of what's his, that is certainly appropriate to the almost entirely different world he occupies. Terence Sims (Woody) and Chiké Johnson (Alberga) play these scenes remarkably well, but they feel lifted from someone else's story, and the play is, at this point, so close to its end that there is little time to contemplate that this interaction demonstrates how well-founded Toni's fear of being tied to a man, rather than taking care of herself, were in the first place.
Tracey N. Bonner's performance in the title role is perfection, from the opening moments up through and including the rough-edged end of the play. Her comic timing in the play's big moments is as exceptional as her physicality as she bats, fields, and joins in the clowning. Bonner blends this charisma seamlessly with Toni's rigid, black-and-white worldview, the way she continually stumbles through relationships with those whom she cares for deeply, and her near-constant recitation of player statistics to maintain some semblance of control in a world that is violent and unpredictable.
Bonner's performance would not work at all without the work of her cast mates, particularly Jon Hudson Odom as Millie. Although Diamond indicates in the script that the role should be visually indicated by the addition of a single item of women's clothing over the Clowns uniform, the costuming here has Odom in a deep purple silk chemise and a brightly patterned silk robe with a flower tucked behind the ear through most of the play. Still, every beat is true to Diamond's dictate that productions avoid exaggeration, stereotype, or any hint of cross-dressing. Odom is painstakingly quiet, genteel and self-contained, yet steely when Toni makes her oblivious proclamations that a person–any person–can achieve the things that others tell them they cannot achieve. The work between Odom and Bonner thus injects a nuanced thread of recognition that the personal is political and the political can strike anyone down–especially a woman, especially a Black woman–at any given moment.
At the other end of the play's character spectrum, it's clear that Diamond intends Alberga to similarly illuminate and deepen Toni's character. Chiké Johnson is very good at moving Alberga from the smooth talker who is very used to his lines working instantly through the genuinely smitten and caring, yet frequently frustrated, suitor who eventually wins Toni's complex heart. Johnson and Bonner have chemistry, but the character of Alberga bears the brunt of Act II's shortcomings, and this facet of the play is not as well-realized as the others.
The actors portraying the rest of the Clowns are, without exception, wonderful and deserve credit for giving the audience a real taste of the team's athletic prowess and the complicated, somewhat guilty pleasure of the spectacle the Negro League teams were also required to provide to their spectators. Kai A. Ealy (King Tut) bears particular mention for throwing himself into the "Stepin Fetchit" role with gusto, and demanding that the audience also witness the terrible toll the constant performances take on this man. Edgar Miguel Sanchez, as the diminutive, bookish (yet famously well-endowed) Spec is similarly adept at blending introspection, social commentary, and the whole-hearted participation in the sweaty, hyper-masculine team dynamics. His conversations with Toni, as well as her late-night bus ride musings with Travis A. Knight's Stretch breathe life into Diamond's impressively rich, complex world.
Toni Stone runs through February 26, 2023, at Goodman Theatre, Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit GoodmanTheatre.org or call 312-443-3800.