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America loves an underdog sports movie.
The climax is often predictable: A team of misfits wins the state championship. The Jamaican bobsledders qualify for a gold medal run. Rudy finally takes the field. And yet, from Hoosiers to Cool Runnings, we’ll watch, and fall, for the faux suspense as an underdog overcomes the odds.
Finding a fan base for an underdog sports play is much harder. Watching actors talk about sports is rarely as satisfying as watching them play sports, and verbosity is where the problems begin for Toni Stone, a well intentioned, well acted new play at Arena Stage about the first woman to make the roster of a Negro League baseball team.
Actually, the play’s problems likely began nearly a decade ago, when director Pam MacKinnon and producer Samantha Barrie approached playwright Lydia R. Diamond—who had never heard of Stone—and commissioned her to write a baseball play.
Along the way, the trio made a series of bold choices: The play would have a non-linear construction, with no plot or dramatic arc. The cast would be all men, with the exception of the lead character. And finally, the humor and language in the show would be ribald and raw, eliminating Toni Stone as an ideal play for students to attend. Striving to make a sports history play that veers from formulaic norms is admirable. Unfortunately, the final results often undermine Toni Stone’s own ambitions, both as a character and as a play.
“I am not a big talker. I talk a lot, but I don’t talk big,” Santoya Fields says in the titular character’s opening monologue. For theatergoing baseball fans, those lines signal that the play will be a pitchers’ duel rather than a slugfest. Based on the 2010 book Curveball by Mount Holyoke College professor Martha Ackmann, Toni Stone unfolds episodically, as a series of monologues punctuated by non-chronological scenes from Stone’s life and career.
Fields pulls off the dialogue-heavy role well, game and folksy while always maintaining her dignity, whether depicting Stone holding her own at a bar or in the dugout. Although Stone played for several teams between 1945 and 1954, Diamond places her only on the roster of the Indianapolis Clowns, with whom she spent her penultimate season. Eight Black actors portray her teammates, including many real baseball players, as well as all other characters in the show, whether they be White, Black, male or female, child or adult.
From a practical standpoint, this keeps the cast small and the costs down. Impractical counterpoint: It’s irksome to watch a play attempt to center the story of a Black woman while providing work for only one Black actress (and her understudy). The decision to place Black men in comedic drag roles also comes with cultural baggage; it’s tough to view the supporting female characters—especially Kenn E. Head, in the role of Stone’s sex worker friend Millie—as more than a gimmick.
Jock jokes are plentiful and initially funny, often comparing the length and hardness of baseball bats to male appendages. Team bookworm Spec (Gilbert Lewis Bailey II) embarks on a long exchange about the etymology of “motherfucker.” Nothing against adult humor, but Arena Stage typically cedes that territory to Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, which opens a Shakespearean riff called Teenage Dick later this month. Sure, athletes joke around. On one of the world’s most coveted baseball cards, Orioles second baseman Billy Ripken has “Fuck Face” written in black on the bottom of his bat. But the overarching tone of Toni Stone is a nostalgic history lesson. And then , like a solo shot to left field, there’s a masturbation sequence. Maybe don’t bring your parents?
Diamond’s script references forces at play in the sports world. Jackie Robinson has made the Big Leagues, as has Henry “Hank” Aaron, who Stone replaced at second base. The Clowns share an owner with the Harlem Globetrotters, and are renowned for their entertaining shenanigans as well as their batting averages. During the early 1950s, the team claims three Negro American League titles. Exhibition game wins in sundown towns force players back on the bus before a losing crowd becomes a mob.
Regrettably, those facts are easier to grasp from MLB.com and Wikipedia than the play. There’s little sense of what’s at stake for Toni’s teammates as Major League Baseball integrates, nor is there mention of a Negro League pennant to win. The onstage action is most earnest during dance breaks choreographed by Camille A. Brown, a buzzy modern dance choreographer moving into theater. A fantastic jazz interlude early in Act I juxtaposes baseball poses with street dance moves. A second explores the mixed legacy of comedic humor in baseball, a tradition that continues to this day on minor league teams like the Savannah Bananas, whose antics recently went viral on TikTok.
“Our people always did have a way of turning what matters into something beautiful that touches the soul,” Toni says. “We call that laughter and they call that clowning,”
In Brown’s choreographic sequence that follows, a series of calisthenic exercises devolve into a critique of clowning not just at baseball games, but in minstrel shows. One-by-one, the actors drop their fake smiles and leave the stage in silence.
That solemn pause predicted a second half that might creatively engage with prejudice and race. But no, soon the players were back on the imaginary bus making dick jokes. Like a summer barnstorming tour, issues like sexual harassment, racism, sex work, and the legacies of minstrel shows are all under-developed stops along the base path for Toni Stone. Our underdog heroine is like a runner stranded at second base halfway through the game, never sliding triumphantly into home.
At Arena Stage to Oct. 3. 1101 6th St. SW. $76–495. (202) 554-9066. arenastage.org.