Like her subject, Lydia R. Diamond’s play Toni Stone refuses to hew to expectations.
Toni is a fascinating character and you understand why someone would wish to dramatize her (this play is based on the book Curveball, The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone by Martha Ackmann). She is the first woman to play with a major league baseball team–the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro League in the 1950s. Both the character and the play are complicated, messy, and non-linear. Characters appear without introduction or explanation. Past, present, and distant past may blur.
The work is not experimental in form per se–but it wears structure loosely and uncomfortably. Diamond wants our theatrical experience of Toni to feel as it might have been to know her with a mind that races all over the place and could not quite articulate her feelings. With beautiful moments of poetic writing and a strong central performance this looseness didn’t always bother me, but the gaps in plot linger and clarity is sacrificed for sensation. Pam MacKinnon’s overactive direction tramples on the piece a bit. I was invested in the character but I left with questions.
With April Matthis as Toni, we eagerly drink in her curious behavior, her idiosyncrasies, and her refusal to conform to what’s expected of her. She wears men’s suits and a fedora when she’s off the field but most of the time she’s on the road with her “boys.” She knows nothing of sex, tending to her hair, or conversational nuance. She’s matter-of-fact, overly literal, blunt, curious, and at ease only in the world of baseball.
Matthis gives a dry delivery which is confident and befuddled at the same time. The world confuses Toni and often she just blows right on by the world anyway. Why should any of that matter. Only baseball matters. Whether this is a coping mechanism or her true philosophy is hard to parse. This is how she presents herself to the world.
Words are not Toni’s strength and yet here she is largely narrating her life story for us. This often leaves it to other characters to make conclusions Toni struggles to make herself about herself or her circumstances. It makes for a colorful portrait but it can frustrate over time. When things start to unravel for her, her confusion around her own choices (to get married after what feels like years of resisting it to an older man who has pursued her) and her struggles with this dissonance get murky.
Toni is at first a religious zealot for baseball but we experience her progressive disillusion and her loss of romance for the sport. Major League Baseball-Major League Baseball Players Association Youth Foundation is a sponsor of this show and other sports plays with associations with major sports leagues have tended towards sanitizing and over-praise (Magic/Bird anyone), it’s refreshing this play does not.
This gives us a glimpse of her living her dream and then seeing that dream sour. And maybe it was always sour underneath but structurally the play uses this dissolution as it’s arc. When she complains about being fed up with the smell of sweaty men we feel it as much as we did when she waxed poetic over the ball in her hand making her complete.
When she says “I’m tired” it is a lament many women of color exhausted from endless misogynoir and racism can relate to. For Toni’s success brings with it compromises, disappointments, misunderstandings, disrespect, spousal domination, and the unjust world around her chips away. That a mentor she had could also be a member of the KKK is one of those moments of cognitive dissonance she is forced to reconcile, or bury.
Camille A. Brown’s movement and choreography reads a bit fuzzy until the big first act closer pulls it into focus. The athletes working out and playing ball morph into exaggerated dance with stomps, high stepping, soft shoe shuffles, and glazed over smiles. We are meant to understand that the Negro Leagues were not just about playing ball but about “entertaining” audiences with clowning and “cooning” much to the physical and emotional exhaustion of the players barely making financial ends meet and dealing with relentless racism and Jim Crow restrictions daily.
In this choreographed number, direct eye contact with the audience is held until its uncomfortable. It’s a point of reckoning with a largely white theater audience who need to confront their own entertainment consumption and at what cost does that come.
A talented ensemble support Matthis, sometimes doubling in their roles. Kenn E. Head plays a no-nonsense, seen-it-all prostitute who is Toni’s one female friend (an interesting choice to keep Matthis isolated as the only woman on stage by having a man play this role). Ezra Knight menaces as the blowhard who picks on Toni the most. Phillip James Brannon wearily bears the weight of the world on his shoulders as the headlining entertainer King Tut on the team.
But it’s Matthis who narrates nearly all and her performance of Toni carries the show. This Toni is full of passion, joy, and sadness at a world that cannot quite catch up to the vision of it she has. She is truly a woman out of time.