Lydia R. Diamond, author of Stick Fly, has created a mesmerizing narrative overlaid onto the rhythm that is baseball in Toni Stone at the Laura Pels Theatre. The swing, the hit, the run, the tag. Her writing, combined with the supple choreography of Camille A. Brown, the guidance of Pam MacKinnon, and a cast delivered from heaven creates a quiet play that soars like an opera.
Toni Stone (April Matthis) is our guide. "I'm not a big talker (she tells us after having asked non-stop for well over 5 minutes). I talk a lot, but I don't talk big... So don't think I'm bragging when I tell you that I do the things I do well, better anybody." And the thing she does well, is play ball. For Toni, baseball is what falling in love is to most girls her age.
The eight men accompanying Toni on this journey are all the other players on the team as well as a couple of pivotal characters - Alberga (Harvy Blanks) and Millie (Kenn E. Head). Alberga will become Toni's husband and Millie - the leading lady at a local house of ill-repute (the team often had few options when it came to bedding down in the era of Jim Crow) who does her best to guide Toni along another path other than that between bases. The rest of this fine cast - Eric Berryman, Phillip James Brannon, Daniel J. Bryant, Jonathan Burke, Toney Goins, and Ezra Knight play not only the baseball team, but what seems like an infinite number of other characters. The transitions are seamless and unexpected. No one is cast according to physical type. These men expand - physically, emotionally and mentally. The action is fast. The nicknames are blurred, low and inside, and we are left to admire the team within the team.
April Matthis is singular as our narrator and guide. She slides from being a child insinuating herself into a baseball practice, until the coach gives her a shot just to get rid of her - and doesn't of course, to being a woman figuring out how to manage a career and a husband. Sound familiar? Her focus on the game is in her genes. When in a pickle, she recites stats like some people would chant a mantra.
Racism is never far away in this tale. The team is owned by a white man. As the team tours on their bus they are granted short shrift in terms of accommodations. Doors open or close. Service is provided or not. Certain bars were off limits. Life was dangerous and conditional everywhere you looked, on the road or on the field. And all the time this team's job was to entertain the crowds who came out to see them play. This was skill disguised as entertainment.
You don't need to know a nickel's worth of facts about the Negro League to fall into the embrace of this show. This is a trifecta of great theatre - a good script, direction that pays attention to detail, and a fine cast. There are a few hiccups in the tale, but these are passed off as small errors that would barely be worth noting in a record book.
This is an evening of hope and inspiration combined with just the right amount of remonstrance. How did this woman (and the rest that followed) fall under our radar? What about the Negro League and its stars? What about the 1931 rule barring women from playing baseball because it was too strenuous. Tell that one to the USA Women's soccer team. The inequities still glare at us, especially in this segregated city. This is a play that does not let us off the hook.
They told Toni Stone that she could not, and she did. They told her again, and she did that too. She did what they said she couldn't and surprised herself. Over and over and over again.
In today's parlance the phrase is: "Nevertheless, she persisted." It is for us to pick up THAT ball and run with it.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
"No matter: Ms. Matthis’s characterization holds everything together, which is all the more astonishing because most of it must be her invention, built on the armature of Ms. Diamond’s pungent dialogue."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"Matthis, luckily, was born for her role. We’ve seen her this droll in Elevator Repair Service parts and this forceful when she has performed for Ralph Lemon, but Toni Stone lets both sides of her talent come together. You see the pitch come to her; you see her pivot to send it on. As she so often does, Matthis makes the play.."
Helen Shaw for Time Out New York
"Matthis, 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."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter