Tag Archives: Nasha Shandri

Toni Stone’s Path to Glory Goes Beyond Winning and Losing

Review: Three Bone Theatre’ Toni Stone at The Arts Factory

By Perry Tannenbaum

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Domingo’s Dot Makes Its Point

Review: Three Bone Theatre Presents Dot

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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The question that he frames in all but words

Is what to make of a diminished thing.

–Robert Frost, “The Oven Bird”

Since their return to live performance last October, Three Bone Theatre has been contracting and then expanding as they adapt to The Arts Factory, their new base of operations on W. Trade Street. They were breathing in at first, perhaps, with a compact one-woman show, and now they’re breathing out. Open was smaller in every way than either of the two productions Three Bone had streamcast during the QC’s lockdowns, Prisoner 34042 and their New Black Playwrights Fest. Smaller cast, shorter running time, and probably smaller audience.

From what I’ve been able to discern, each of Three Bone’s 2022 shows has been bigger, longer, and better attended than the one before. With Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children back in March, we saw a larger cast, a longer show, and actual scenery. Meanwhile, armed with masks and vaccination cards, more theatergoers seemed ready to venture out into the night to see a relevant post-apocalyptic drama.

Colman Domingo’s Dot detains us longer and offers us more characters to consider, though it’s clear that Philadelphia matriarch Dottie Shealy is far and away the one that we – and her three children – should be most concerned about. It’s the Christmas holiday season in Philly, a time when the children converge around a tall spruce tree with enough lead time to collaborate on the decorations. Shelly, the eldest and a lawyer, is holding down the fort while her sibs, Donnie and Averie, have the freedom to flounder in their careers.

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Shelly rightfully feels that she must watch her mom like a hawk. Ever since Dotty was hauled into a local police station after speeding at 95mph, unthinkable anywhere near Philly, Shelly has been unsure what bizarre lapse Mom might have next. With the onset of dementia and a diagnosis of progressing Alzheimer’s, Dotty shuttles between the self her children have always known and somebody prone to forgetting names and events, losing track of where she is and what time it is, or coming back from her kitchen with a bag of Oreos instead of the salt she went in for.

Unable to keep tabs on Dotty around-the-clock, Shelly has hired a gentle young Indian man, Fidel, to help her out. But Shelly is out of patience and out of her depth, so she has become a bit bossy and toxic. Not only has she hidden Mom’s car keys, she uses her disorientation to trick her into signing legal papers she doesn’t understand and going to bed in the middle of the day. Calling for a family conference with Donnie and Averie deep in Act 2, she locks Dotty in her bedroom, astonishing her sibs. Convinced that Mom is planning to kill herself – driving around at 95mph is a serious symptom – Shelly has also developed a paranoid attitude toward Fidel, suspecting him of helping Dotty to hatch her plan.

Woven into all this dramatic intrigue – and all of Shelly’s questionable choices – you’ll find that Domingo has provided plenty of opportunities for comedy. Shelly’s deceitful and aggressive coping mechanisms compromise her character for us long before her sibs arrive on the scene. So we can see why Donnie and Averie would both impugn her credibility and resent her bossiness, no matter how stressed she may be. Aside from that pushback, Dotty can be quite formidable herself when she’s lucid, with quite the sharp tongue on her.

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Perceptive, too. She could always see that Donnie was “gay as giftwrap,” even before her daughters knew. Nor is Dotty totally blind to her own decline, despite all the resistance she puts up against Shelly. It’s hard to believe that Dotty would off herself on Christmas as a reaction to her own deterioration, when all the family is gathered ‘round, but there is definitely something secretive about her interactions with Fidel.

Navigating Dotty’s mood swings, mental lapses, and surreptitious plotting takes a performer over some tricky terrain, requiring sudden hairpin turns; but if you saw Lillie Ann Oden as the wary, savvy, and pragmatic wife in The Children, you’ll likely have little doubt that she can tackle this black Philly matriarch. With Corey Mitchell back as director, after an all-too-common two-year hiatus from the local scene, you might find that Oden still exceeds your high expectations with her saltiness, her increasing confusion, and her sheer naturalness.

While Dotty and her struggles are comparatively fresh onstage, experienced actors and theatergoers will likely recognize the regathering sibs as somewhat formulaic. It won’t be the first time we’ve seen one of a set of sibs turn out to be disagreeably disapproving and controlling, nor will it be a shock to see a sister or brother who is insouciantly adrift, unsettled, charismatic, and irresponsible. Kookiness is often in the mix. Domingo takes pains to give Valerie Thames as Shelly, Marvin King as Donnie, and Nasha Shandri as Averie distinctive personalities and detailed backstories for them to inhabit.

You’re still forgiven if you occasionally find yourself feeling that these capable actors are filling in time-tested sitcom slots or a template lifted from Crimes of the Heart and skillfully refurbished. Thames gets to switch during intermission from a pineapple hair color to a bright raspberry, signaling that she may be the responsible sister but has no intention of remaining anonymous – at the same time showing us that Shelly can be vulnerable, sensitive to Mom’s criticisms.

Long before Shandri has made her first entrance, we’re aware that Averie is the most outré and unbridled of the Shealys. Yet we’re very quickly aware that there’s a loving, conciliatory core to Averie. Over and over, we see that the estrangement between the two sisters is strictly one-sided. It’s Averie who counsels Shelly, with full persuasiveness of a sister, that changing hair colors isn’t quite the right path. She must ditch Andre instead, her hairdresser. Off-handedly and gradually, Shandri and King reveal to us that Shelly undervalues both her sibs.

Jackie and Dotty

Likely an autobiographical creation from Domingo, Donnie is the sibling who most breaks the sitcom mold. King is a moderately daring casting choice from Mitchell, not reminding me of giftwrap at all, but he’s immensely likable without hardly trying. Although he never earmarks him as his parents’ favorite, Domingo clearly designates Donnie as the most beloved of the Shealys. Two additional characters are devoted to double-underlining this point, Tommy Prudenti as Donnie’s husband and Amy Dunn as his high school sweetheart.

Jackie, still carrying a torch for her old flame (among other things), is a useful character from the very beginning, long before she tries to come between Donnie and Adam. Frank conversations between Dotty and her children seem to have ceased years before her current aging crisis, and as the houselights go down, Shelly and her mom have no plausible reason to exchange information about each other that we need to know as quickly as possible. Jackie’s coming back home and catching up with her old flame’s mom, after years away in New York, opens up windows for us into what’s happening with both Dotty and Shelly.

Donnie and Adam

Dunn’s slant on Jackie takes into account that she is not at all opposed to homewrecking, so she can be a bit brash and irritating, though she usefully questions the crueler aspects of Shelly’s caretaking. She brings out a lot from Dottie and Shelly in the beginning, but it’s Prudenti as Adam who really brings out the best in his mother-in-law, unexpectedly reminding her of her dead husband. Due to his marital issues with Donnie, we get to feel that we know Donnie nearly as well as Dottie and Shelly, though Domingo overestimates our interest in seeing them sort out their love lives.

Both Jackie and Adam, interestingly enough, are white, so there’s a refreshing lack of racial tension in Dot, though the meanness of Philly’s inner city lurks plainly enough in the background. In fact, Jackie is Jewish, further broadening the palette. In these matters, Domingo is most subtle, for there is a shared prejudice against Fidel among the younger Shealys, leading them to underestimate the foreigner, either through unwarranted suspicion or dismissiveness. Our dear Dottie is the first to properly gauge his intelligence and worth.

In his theatrical debut, computer science grad student Satheesh Kandula gives us a marvelously mild account of Fidel, diffident and polite but not at all servile. Kandula is hardly a credible target for xenophobia, but we’re not terribly surprised to see it happening – and it might give us pause if we consider the possibility that Fidel may understand Dottie better than anyone else onstage. What he and his co-conspirator wind up concocting for Christmas turns out to be the best lesson of the night.

Only Jackie calls Dottie “Mrs. Shealy,” and absolutely nobody presumes to call her Dot. So why is that Domingo’s title? I’ve yet to read a review that mulls that question over, though I consider the answers – pragmatic or literary – worth pondering. “Dottie” might hint too broadly that Domingo’s protagonist has gone crazy, a matter that the playwright would surely prefer to remain ambiguous.

The other reason for the title is about what Domingo does wish to say. He’s using the diminutive of Dorothy and Dottie to emphasize that Dottie, in her drift toward dementia and Alzheimer’s, is becoming different, “a diminished thing” as Robert Frost would say. At the same time, she remains the same. That’s the main point of Dot.

Brooklyn Grace Receives a Classic Museum

Review: BNS Productions Presents The Colored Museum

By Perry Tannenbaum

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In every decade since it premiered Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 1986, George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum has had a homegrown revival here in Charlotte. GM Productions premiered it up in the Attic Theatre at the old Afro-Am Cultural Center on 7th Street in 1993, and Carolina Actors Studio Theatre brought it to their C.A.S.T. location out in Plaza-Midwood ten years later. On Q Productions finally smuggled Wolfe’s 11 vignettes – or “exhibits” – into an Uptown site at Spirit Square in 2011.

Now BNS Productions has brought Colored Museum to its unlikeliest location, the Brooklyn Grace Venue, alias the Grace AME Zion Church on S Brevard Street. Each new revival more fully cements Wolfe’s satire as a classic – Winthrop U and UNC Charlotte have also chimed in with productions since 2009 – and each new resurrection that I see strikes me as fresh and hilarious as the first.

Of course, nothing compares with the edge and impact of your maiden encounter. Wolfe hurls a few choice barbs at white folk, mostly mocking their bland cruelty, but armed with an all-Black cast, it’s African-Americans and their culture that he assails with the most conspicuous gusto. All Colored Museum casts get to feast most hilariously on the sufferings and posturings of the Younger family in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Walter Lee’s wailings against “the man” in this “Last Mama-On-The-Couch Play” take a detour into Beau Willie Brown’s barbarity in Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls.CCC02756

Familiarity with those two stage gems helps you to savor Graham Williams, Sr.’s over-the-top brilliance as Walter-Lee-Beau-Willie, but his reappearance, immediately after intermission, as The Man only magnifies his triumph. For Wolfe delights especially in depicting the disfigurements that black people inflict upon themselves to survive and succeed in white America. The Kid, played by Jonathan Caldwell, must now disown and discard his Afro-comb, dashiki, autographed Stokely Carmichael photo, Afro-sheen, Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone recordings, along with Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice – replaced, The Man tells him, by The Color Purple.

Black Power and protest must be tossed into the trashcan along with slavery if you wish to get to the top. The Kid is dismayed, incredulous, and beside himself when The Man reaches for… The Temptations Greatest Hits! Yes, if The Man is to feel totally comfortable in his black business suit and fully acclimate to white blandness, even “My Girl” must bite the dust.CCC02782

Women also get choice bits from Wolfe, beginning with Nasha Shandri as our prim stewardess, Miss Pat, welcoming us aboard Celebrity Slaveship and inviting us to fasten our shackles as we cross the Atlantic to Savannah. Dancing in the aisles seems to be allowed during our voyage – as long as we keep our shackles on – but “No drums!” Of course, we will get a bluesy cooking lesson from Sandra Thomas as Aunt Ethel, teaching us, with abundant historical ingredients, how to cook up “a batch of Negroes.” Uncanny Aunt Jemima resemblance here.

Shandri and Thomas both reappear in “The Last Mama-On-The-Couch,” with Thomas in the title role switching from cheery to grumpy and Shandri upbraiding Walter-Lee-Beau-Willie (and cataloguing her own sufferings) as Medea Jones, a subtle reminder that white folk are also known to drop babies from great heights. Most of this skit targets Raisin, of course, with Toi Aquila R.J. as Lady in Plaid serving as Shange’s leading Colored Girls emissary.

Meanwhile James Lee Walker, II, has a tasty role as our narrator, bestowing an Oscar-like statuette upon one actress after a heart-rending monologue and then ripping it out of her grasp when the next actress tops her.CCC02580

Walker has already topped himself as the regal, finger-snapping drag queen who imparts “The Gospel According to Miss Roj.” Revisiting Wolfe’s Museum, director Dee Abdullah limits herself to the crossdressing that’s in the script. In 2003, by contrast, Aunt Ethel and Last Mama were also done in drag. But Abdullah brings back Chris Thompson from the CAST production, so the West African choreography at Brooklyn Grace – and the forbidden drumming – have the same sparkle.CCC02717-1

Acoustically, the Grace isn’t ideal for theatre, nor is the place outfitted for professional-grade lighting design. But Abdullah, Sandra Thomas, and Shacana Kimble compensate, teaming up for an admirable array of costumes, from the frumpiness of Last Mama to the imperious splendor of Roj – and on the other side of intermission, the voguish gown of LaLa Lamazing Grace, an expatriated Josephine Baker wannabe done with slaying disdain by Jess Johnson. Until her down-home roots are exposed.CCC02449

In “Hairpiece,” Shandri plays a woman who has literally burnt her roots. Or as Johnson puts it as LaWanda, “She done fried, dyed, and de-chemicalized her shit to death.” All to please the man that Shandri is now dumping. LaWanda is actually a talking wig stand, facing us on a makeup table (and presumably Shandri as well in a fourth-wall mirror). She’s debating whether her owner should be shaking her hot-pressed tresses back and forth when she irately gives her boyfriend the ax, or whether Janine, the Afro wig contemptuously advocated by LaTonya Lewis, should be the fearsome choice to make him shrivel.

While the wigs are debating whether Shandri is most powerful in her natural or chemicalized crown, it’s easy to forget the satirical barb that Wolfe has tossed toward the menfolk. The finally-dispensable boyfriend was a “political quick-change artist,” Janine dishes. Every time “he changed his ideology, she went and changed her hair to fit the occasion.”

Style is important, that’s for sure. Aside from Raisin, the most sacred cow that Wolfe takes down is Ebony Magazine, the barbershop bible of African-American life. Lewis and Williams are the supermodel couple of “The Photo Shoot” who have given away their lives to be beautiful and wear fabulous clothes month after month. Relentlessly smiling and feeling no pain.

Perhaps the wisest thing about Wolfe’s Museum – the good, the bad, the ugly, and the absurd – is that it’s simply there. Do with it as you wish.

“The ultimate questions from Wolfe apply with a fierce pertinence to all oppressed peoples,” I wrote in response to Abdullah’s 2003 production with CAST. “How do we carry the baggage of the past into the future without hampering and crippling ourselves? And how do we leave this baggage behind without discarding key parts of our culture, our heritage, and our identity? These grim questions go unanswered, but watching this energized ensemble wrestling with them will likely double you over with laughter.”

Can’t improve very much on those observations – unless I compress them for 2022 into Wolfe’s words. At the beginning of our journey and again at evening’s end, our stewardess, Miss Pat, tells us: “Before exiting, check the overhead as any baggage you don’t claim, we trash.”

That’s the key choice Wolfe aims to leave us with.