'Toni Stone': Theater Review

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
April Mathis and cast in 'Toni Stone'
A whiff.
8/11/2019

The new biographical drama by Lydia R. Diamond, author of 'Stick Fly' and 'Smart People,' tells the story of the first African-American woman to play professional baseball.

Prior to seeing Lydia R. Diamond's new play about the first woman ever to play big-league professional baseball, I barely knew anything about Toni Stone. And now, after seeing Toni Stone, I feel like I know even less.

The life of the title character, who made history by playing second base for the Negro League's Indianapolis Clowns beginning in 1953, would seem to be a fascinating subject for dramatization. Unfortunately, this play, receiving its world premiere with Roundabout Theatre Company, seems more intent on theatrical frippery than telling a compelling story.

"I am prone to rambling," admits Toni (April Mathis, consistently arresting even when the writing isn't) in her opening monologue, which stretches out over more than two pages of the play's text. She's telling the truth, as the character is endlessly prone to lengthy soliloquies that tell the story rather than dramatizing it. The writing's presentational style becomes too cutesy by far; introducing a flashback to when she was a little girl, Toni, adopting an adolescent posture, announces, "I'm a little girl!" For a scene set on a bus, she declares of some chairs littered on the stage, "This is the bus!" Something is amiss when a playwright feels the need to instruct the audience to use their imaginations.

Mathis is the only female onstage, with the male ensemble playing Toni's teammates as well as numerous other characters including Alberga (Harvy Blanks), the much older man who became her husband, and Millie (Kenn E. Head), her best friend. This means that the eight black men onstage often play white and female figures, assuming Caucasian speech patterns for the former and high-pitched lilts for the latter.

Telling the characters apart becomes a problem that's only exacerbated by the confusing, non-linear storytelling and windy, cartoonish dialogue. Many scenes come to an end without providing any clue as to what they were about, other than a proliferation of scatological humor. "I don't tell a story all nice and neat," Toni reminds us at one point, too obviously serving as a mouthpiece for the playwright. The story theater-style approach doesn't serve the esoteric material well, and anyone not already familiar with the subject matter is likely to feel lost at times.

The subject inevitably lends itself to provocative issues of racism and sexism, but the play rarely delves into them in a satisfying manner. When Toni relates a story of being encouraged by the famous white pro player Gabby Street, the pleasant anecdote ends with her informing us, "It was years later that I learned Gabby was in the KKK." The line packs a punch, but that's as far as the play goes with it.

You have to strain to catch the more interesting moments, such as some of Toni's teammates expressing envy of Jackie Robinson and commenting about how his good looks and non-threatening demeanor helped him become accepted by white fans. The labored writing feels particularly disappointing coming from Diamond, who displayed a talent for incisive social observation and sharp dialogue with such previous works as Stick Fly and Smart People and has worked as a writer and consulting producer on Showtime's The Affair.

Pam MacKinnon (Clybourne Park, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) attempts to inject some liveliness into the proceedings with her fast-paced staging, performed on a set featuring little more than some wan bleachers and overhead stadium-style lighting. But the performers' frequent miming of ballplaying moves, which at times morph into full-blown dance, choreographed by Camille A. Brown (Choir Boy, Once on This Island), eventually proves more tiresome than invigorating. We've seen this sort of thing done far too many times before, and to much greater effect.

Mathis, who took over the title role after Uzo Aduba (Orange Is the New Black) withdrew for scheduling reasons, delivers a fascinatingly idiosyncratic, highly physical performance marred only by her tendency to make her lines unintelligible by delivering them as if she were racing round the bases. (It's hard to blame her, considering the endless verbiage she's forced to spew.) The rest of the ensemble all have their moments, but they too often blur together and fail to delineate their broadly written roles.

According to the program, the play is based on the biography Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, written by Martha Ackerman. It might be advisable for anyone truly interested in the subject to start there.

Venue: Laura Pels Theatre, New York
Cast: Eric Berryman, Harvy Blanks, Phillip James Brannon, Daniel J. Bryant, Jonathan Burke, Toney Goins, Kenn E. Head, Ezra Knight, April Mathis
Playwright: Lydia R. Diamond
Director: Pam MacKinnon
Set designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume designer: Dede Ayite
Lighting designer: Allen Lee Hughes
Music & sound designer: Broken Chord
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company