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 — trickier than it seems — is what drives Ed Schmidt's brief, argumentative drama Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting. Schmidt's bracing historical fiction, which opens at the Hattiloo Theatre this week, finds black superstars like Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, heavyweight champion Joe Louis, and actor Paul Robeson holed up in a room in New York's Roosevelt Hotel, counselling a young slugger and sparring with the pioneering baseball executive Branch Rickey.
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. Robinson, 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 was also approaching penury and frequently taken to task by critics for performing stereotypical roles. Louis — the Brown Bomber — was similarly in debt and familiar with the day-to-day indignities black men faced regardless of achievement. Robeson, the renowned singer and actor, was also an active Communist who didn't trust the myth of individual achievement. He worries that the success of Robinson and the relatively few players who make it to the big show comes at the expense of other people's jobs. He believes it will result in the failure of the Negro League, ceding all the power in baseball to white ownership.
And there, in the middle of it all, is Jackie Robinson, as proud as he is terrified, and Mr. Rickey, the tough, tightfisted agent of social justice, who clashes with Robeson while talking about buying and selling players like cattle.