What was really at stake when baseball was integrated and Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues? That question drives Ed Schmidt's brief, argumentative drama Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting
. It's slippery too. Much trickier than you might think given how the history's usually presented. Schmidt's bracing historical fiction, which opened solidly at the Hattiloo Theatre
last weekend, only scratches a scant bit deeper, but good creative archeology's been done here, and there's a whole lot of illuminating artifact in the short, shallow trench Mr. Rickey
The push to integrate major league baseball didn't begin with Jackie Robinson. Lefty journalists and activists campaigned to make the national pastime look more like the nation for years. Even in the Jim Crow era, this was inevitability, so in the mind of Baseball exec Branch Rickey, the question turned from when it would happen, to how it might be allowed to happen. Rickey's answer: One man — to test the waters — others to trickle. So Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting
becomes an engaging, often entertaining study in American exceptionalism.
With America's first African-American president preparing to leave office while folks who look like him are in the streets protesting the same old never-ending shit, this play feels like it's landed right on time.
Branch Rickey wants everything perfect for Jackie Robinson's big rollout. He knows what to expect from the white community, and it's not pretty, so he's carefully selected a squeaky clean player who's agreed to remain passive and pleasant in the face of spitting, name calling, violence, whatever. But resistance to integration came from within the African-American community too, and with good reason. While promoting a black baseball hero who smiled in the face of adversity, might create opportunities for similarly dispositioned individuals, it would be a major league victory for white hegemony, per usual, sending devastating shockwaves through the African-American sports and business community. So — and this is where the fiction takes over — one of baseball's great innovators — a man sometimes called "Mahatma" — calls a meeting of what today we'd call "influencers." Summoned guests on his list include an aged Bill "Bojangles" Robinson who's still dancing to make ends meet, broke boxing champ Joe Louis, and actor/activist Paul Robeson who's flat not having any. Rickey wants them to say nice things to the media and guard against inconvenient protests that could threaten Jackie's chances in the majors. So the titans assemble (along with a resourceful bellboy) in a cramped room at the Roosevelt Hotel. There they sip cherry sodas, shoot the shit, scrap like contenders, and, in a faint echo of the Medieval mystery play, act out all the reasons not to trust Whitey.
Everybody at Mr. Rickey's summit understood what it meant to be exceptional, rising to the top of their fields while other African-Americans struggled — and still having to enter through the rear of public buildings. Mr. Bojangles, depicted near the end of his life, had been a Civil Rights champion and the highest-earning black performer in America. But the elderly dancer, with an owner's stake in Negro League Baseball, was on the ropes financially and assailed by critics for performing stereotypical roles. Louis — the Brown Bomber — was similarly down at heel, and too familiar with the day-to-day indignities black men faced regardless of achievement. Robeson, by contrast to everybody else in the room, was an active Communist who didn't trust the myth of individual achievement. He worries the success of Jackie Robinson and the relatively few players called up to the big show comes at the expense of other people's jobs and entire careers. He believes it will result in the ultimate failure of the Negro League, ceding all the power in baseball to white ownership. Who will go to the games when all the stars have gone away, he asks, wondering what will become of the people who sell tickets and concessions, and maintain fields, and so on. Then he makes a fair counterproposal.
Instead of one man at a time, how about one team at a time — black-owned? There are no spoilers here since we know the outcome, but the big ideas roiling through this cage match of a play make it exciting to watch as it swings for the fences on it's way to its historic conclusion.
The Hattiloo's production is sturdy, but rough at the edges at the preview performance I attended. It looked like it could stand another week of rehearsal instead of just a day, but all signs pointed to a production growing into what it needed to be. When the actors are more confident with lines and cues, this one promises to give off sparks. It's a strong ensemble led by journeyman actor Ron Gephart as the titular Mr. He's joined by Mario Hope as the bell hop, Frank Johnson as Bill Robinson, Emmanuel McKinney as Louis, Courtney Williams as Jackie Robinson, and Jonathan Williams as Robeson.
McKinney feels miscast here, but show's once again just how good a character actor he can be. As Louis he spends much of the play detached, either listening, or self-distracting, but when he engages it's fierce, game-changing, and alternately threatening and intensely humane. It's another great performance from an actor who doesn't seem to know how to do it any other way.
Williams seemed to struggle most with lines, but crackled when he his his marks.
As directed by Dennis Darling, Mr. Rickey is a fantastic example of Hattiloo doing what it does best by providing Memphis theatergoers with a clear alternative. Although more musicals are creeping into its seasons there's still a strong commitment to drama and this is a good one.