Review: Three Bone Theatre’ Toni Stone at The Arts Factory
By Perry Tannenbaum
Trivia questions: who replaced Hank Aaron when the future home run king moved up from the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League to the majors? And who was the first woman to sign a professional baseball contract and play with a men’s team? The answer to both questions is Toni Stone, nee Marcenia Lyle Stone (1921-1996) – unless you’re a stickler for fact-checking and historical accuracy.
Then we need to face the truth that Hammerin’ Hank was already playing for the Braves’ farm club, the Eau Claire Bears, a season before Stone made her Negro League debut at second base with the Clowns. And before team owner Syd Pollock signed her to a Clowns contract, Stone had played in professional men’s leagues – if not the topmost major league – for 16 or 17 years, depending on which capsule biography you read.
Hearing all this for perhaps the first time, you’ll probably ask a truly important question, one that playwright Lydia R. Diamond surely asked after reading Martha Ackmann’s 2010 biography, Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone the First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League. Why haven’t we all heard about Toni Stone before, and why isn’t she more celebrated?
Amazingly enough, when Diamond’s Toni Stone premiered Off-Broadway in June 2019, the playwright didn’t blare out the answers that would become so glaringly obvious to everyone the following summer in the midst of #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and our communal COVID hibernation. Diamond’s portrait of the pioneer nicknamed Tomboy during her childhood in St. Paul is more nuanced, diffuse, and detailed than it might be if she had begun sketching it after the cataclysms, polarization, and pandemic chaos of 2020. Or the nationwide schism of January 6.
Lucky us? In some ways, Three Bone Theatre’s production at The Arts Factory, meticulously directed by Dr. Corlis Hayes, reminds us how relatively dispassionate we were less than three years ago when we looked at neglected pathfinders and feminist icons. There’s a certain amount of useful calibration when Diamond seemingly steps aside and lets Toni tell us her story – and what she thinks of herself.
In her third standout outing of the year, Nasha Shandri immerses herself engagingly in all of Toni’s quirks, vulnerabilities, and strengths; candid rather than arrogant, sassy rather than seductive. Above all else, Toni loves baseball – the ball, the glove, the game. Both Diamond and Shandri make us believe it.
When she runs out of things to say, to us or her teammates, Toni will recite major league player stats, as if she’s collected and memorized every baseball card out there – as if the numbers have magic healing powers when she’s distressed. Diamond makes her so obsessed with baseball that romance and sexuality make her uncomfortable. Shandri has a mumbling recitation of stats at her disposal, or a Peter Pan aversion to being touched, whenever hormones begin flowing around her. She’s a natural, either way she goes.
An all-Black ensemble of eight men hustles around Jennifer O’Kelly’s appropriately seedy set, which packages a movable tavern, a ramshackle players’ dugout, and a dimly lit brothel, leaving most of the Arts Factory playing space free to fancifully, maybe laughably, serve as a baseball diamond. Eight men aren’t going to be enough to bring us all the mentors, parents, teammates, and romantic interests of multiple races and genders that Toni will deal with from her childhood through her baseball career (1936-1954). Props and costumes are stowed in the dugout as well as offstage to keep things flowing.
Cutting through much of the confusion, Diamond keeps the names, personalities, and fielding positions of Toni’s teammates as constant as the parks she plays in. All evening long, Shandri and her team wear the same Clowns uniforms, authentically rendered by costume designer Kara Harman. That way, Toni’s path comes across as less solitary while she moves from her early ballplaying days in a local church league to a series of American Legion and minor league teams in Minnesota, San Francisco, and New Orleans before her major-league apotheosis: a full year with the Indy Clowns in 1953, before she joined the famed Kansas City Monarchs for her final season.
Diamond and Hayes are both aware of the perils of allowing Toni and the shorthand differentiation of her crew to devolve into a wholesome replay of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The playwright not only gives us frequent glimpses of the racism that dogs Toni’s progress, she also shows us the sexism and piggishness behind the scenes in the clubhouse, occasionally checked but never eradicated.
We also see that there are good reasons for the men’s resentments when Stone signs on with the Clowns. When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 and Larry Doby integrated the American League during the following season, the Negro Leagues began to crumble. By the time Aaron is signing with the Braves in 1952, the talent drain is on the verge of killing Negro League baseball, reducing its remaining teams to barnstorming roadshows.
Clowns owner Syd Pollock – nearly overacted here by James Lee Walker II – didn’t sign Stone to make his team better. Unlike previous owners, who signed Toni on her merit, Pollock signed her as a novelty to improve the marketability and entertainment value of the team, already baseball’s equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters. In a notable confrontation between Shandri and Walker, Diamond shows us that Pollock isn’t interested in showcasing his new acquisition on a level playing field. To ensure his investment – not very much, if we’re talking about Toni’s salary – Pollock colludes with other owners to ease up on her in the middle innings, when their pitchers will throw her more hittable pitches.
Toni grudgingly keeps the secret, but her teammates aren’t as oblivious or dimwitted as Pollock presumes.
Hayes does her part, casting the other Clowns, so that Shandri doesn’t stick out uncomfortably as the smallest on the team. In particular, the other middle infielder is diminutive, in the vein of Phil Rizzuto, Jose Altuve, or Joe Morgan. On the other hand, Miles Thompson as Spec, the team intellectual, is not at all the dwarf that he was reputed to be. Along with Justin Jordan as Woody, the embittered teammate who is by far the most trouble for Toni, Thompson is quite an imposing figure.
More than one of the Clowns points up Toni’s sexual inexperience in their dugout and locker room banter. One whole scene, a rather bawdy little prank played on her with a baseball bat, more than emphasizes her naivete. It also heightens uncertainty among the men about Toni’s sexual orientation.
Clearly, Diamond wants to keep us guessing, too. The juiciest roles outside the clubhouse go to Robert Rankin as Millie, the madam of that brothel, and Keith Logan as Captain Aurelious Alberga, an elderly admirer who persistently pursues her at Jack’s Tavern, a San Francisco joint. Skittishly resisting Alberga’s initial advances, Shandri seems more attracted to Millie, whose sexual appeal is aimed at her teammates. Both Rankin and Logan give charismatic performances, worldly and mature, charismatic and confident.
Doubling as Drunk Willie when he dons his Clown uniform, Walker as Pollock is probably the best at marking those moments when white men enter the story. Hayes could have sharpened the portraiture a bit more when we meet the other white folk: Father Charles Keefe, the neighborhood parish priest who paves the way for Toni to play organized ball; and Gabby Street, nicely handled by Thompson, the former manager of the world champion St. Louis Cardinals, who yields to Toni’s repeated entreaties, making it possible for her to aim higher.
Melissa McDaniel Grisham’s choreography seems a bit toothless and pointless when the Clowns team goes into their pre-game shtick. From reviews I’ve read on the Off-Broadway production, the aim there was not just to show how athletic and entertaining the players were but also to show the degradation and of being clowns as well as ballplayers. There’s not even a hint of cringeworthiness here at The Arts Factory that critics had perceived in New York.
Yet the chemistry among the players has exactly the tang we want when they’re playing the game they love – under shabby, hateful conditions. Johnathan McKnight as the catcher Stretch exudes the authority of the team’s quarterback, and Devin Clark has the aloof dignity of Elzie, the Clowns’ pitching ace. Tito Holder energetically grins and pouts as Jimmy, the team dumbass, and Frank FaCheaux makes the most of the glimpse Diamond gives us of team comedian King Tut, whom Pollock dubbed “The Clown Prince of Negro Baseball.”
Toni Stone has a hazy mythic aura to it unlike most biographical baseball sagas. Intense nail-biting games down to the last pitch or the cumulative drama of a torrid pennant race are nowhere to be found. They are as irretrievable as the barnstorming Clowns’ won-lost records, batting averages, ERAs, and boxscores. What binds the roaming Clowns together like family, in spite of their frustrations and resentments, is the love they share with Toni – for the game.