Tag Archives: The Arts Factory

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.

Kirkwood’s “The Children” Asks Hard Questions of Good, Smart, Caring People

Review: Three Bone Theatre Presents The Children

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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March 13, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Two retired nuclear physicists, a husband and wife both in their sixties, have taken up residence in a cozy coastal UK cottage, where they are visited without receiving prior notice by a former co-worker they haven’t seen in some 38 years, also in her sixties. These are the only characters we see in Lucy Kirkwood’s acclaimed drama, now playing at The Arts Factory in a taut Three Bone Theatre production – and I can’t say that any of the three physicists ever mentions his or her parents. Nor are there any flashback scenes in this 90-minute one-act that take us back four decades or more to when these over-the-hill atomic whizzes were young and previously together. So why exactly has Kirkwood called her dystopian drama The Children?The Cast of The Children

It’s the sort of question that rewards repeated asking as the plot proceeds and we learn more and more about the past that Hazel, Robin, and Rose have shared – and the daunting future ahead of them. There are a couple of substantial answers that gradually emerge, the subtler of these turning out to be personal and intimate. For the lives and careers of all three retirees have been shaped by past decisions to have or not to have children. More obvious, and more to the point, are the decisions that must soon be made in the wake of a disaster at the nuclear plant where all three of these physicists used to work, decisions that will impact not only their children, but also, locally and globally, the children – depending on how guilty, responsible, or obligated they feel.

We’re obviously dealing with a catastrophe on a scale equal to those at Chernobyl in 1986 and, even more pertinently with the earthquakes and tsunamis enfolded into Kirkwood’s concept, Fukushima in 2011, five years before the commissioned piece premiered in London. The cottage where Hazel and Robin are living is perilously close to the fenced-off area surrounding Ground Zero, which remains destabilized. Amid the brevity of Rose’s visit, Kirkwood manages to spread a veil of nebulosity over the extent and permanence of the damage inflicted by the catastrophe. There’s an ongoing rationing of food and electricity, but the couple’s isolation and their aversion to the Internet puts a lid on the info we get. Hazel and Robin are retired, yes. But in light of their isolation, ignorance, and apathy, we might also say – as Rose probably would – that they are resigned, not really thinking about how they might best use their remaining time.

Certainly, the cottage dwellers aren’t stressing over their culpability for the devastation that surrounds them when Rose intrudes. They would seem to be following Candide’s example at the end of Voltaire’s wicked, wicked novel, tending to their own gardens – or in Robin’s case, their fields, where he makes his daily escape before coming home to dine on Hazel’s homegrown salads. After 38 years, Hazel and Rose still have each other sized up rather well, Hazel knowing more about Rose’s attachment to her husband – and vice versa – than he would believe, and Rose knowing something about Robin’s wife that he never even suspected. As Kirkwood interweaves these personal revelations with the possible global crisis engulfing them, we began to understand how a group of nuclear physicists could have been blind for so long to the fiery red flags signaling so clearly to them that nuclear catastrophe was at hand. In their personal and professional lives, they have seriously miscalculated.The Children- Robin and Hazel

Directed by Three Bone co-founder Robin Tynes-Miller, with set design by Ryan Maloney and props by Jackie Hohenstein, this Charlotte premiere huddles the audience around the action in an intimate stadium layout like a miniaturized Circle in the Square on Broadway. The humble coziness of the setting, not at all contradicted by Davita Galloway’s costume designs, make this cottage look more rusticated than most production photos that come up on a Google search. Likewise, Lillie Ann Oden and Michael Harris have a more weathered look than the London and Broadway marrieds, as if they had aimed their portraiture toward farmers in their sixties or physicists in their seventies.

This rustic approach actually has some advantages, for Mitzi Corrigan as their visitor seems slightly younger, more active, more enlightened, and more modern than her hosts at first blush. She claims to have forewarned Hazel and Robin via email before appearing at their doorstep, and the laptop she is toting backs her up, looking out of place here in this back-to-basics abode. When it becomes apparent that Rose has been around the neighborhood for some time on her personal crusade, we cannot be surprised that this couple – steeped in stasis – has been unaware.The Children- Hazel and Rose

Another key thing that Tynes-Miller gets right, despite the longstanding hurts and grudges that will emerge among these former co-workers, is that all of them are good people, bonded together by the preventable tragedy that has broken them all. Oden has an edge to her as Hazel, dealing with the most guilts, savvy enough to be wary of Rose, yet the defensive chip on her shoulder is more like a light skillet held behind her back than a double-barrel shotgun dangling under her arm. She is polite, she is friendly, even loving, but you’ve got to coax it out of her now. As the former Don Juan of the nuclear plant, Harris mixes a shrunken amount of confident swagger into Robin and an occasional urge to dance into his prevailing disillusion, disappointment, and bitterness – with more to swallow heading his way. Beneath the crusty brooding, he’s tenderer, more considerate than his spouse, still sharp enough to be shocked and to make a quick decision.

Rose has had the most hurt to deal with over the years, yet Corrigan poured a sheen of insouciance and quiet purpose over her – until the old hurts and grudges spurted to the surface. She needed to be impressive in tamping down these emotions, with clear-eyed pragmatism and poise to succeed in her ultimate mission of persuasion. Or was it seduction that motivated her, as Hazel had good reason to suspect?The Children- Rose and Robin 1

Sadly, we cut all these people a hefty amount of slack because there is so much more than the overly hasty development of nuclear energy befouling our planet. Other industries are complicit in building a multitude of time bombs we constantly hear ticking around us, and many governments have dirty hands. Chernobyl and Fukushima have receded into the past, our gazes drawn to other filthy objects and humans. These ordinary people, for all the wrong they have done to each other, all the mess they have left for their children to clean up, are questioning whether they should continue sitting back, enjoying their retirement years, and doing absolutely nothing about it.

Maybe they’re the ones who should pitch in and help, despite the fact that no one person living in a toxic irradiated wasteland can even begin to turn the global tide. No, these fine actors are telling us as we look over their shoulders: many, many more ordinary people need to be doing the asking – and the acting.

“My Dinner With Andrea” Takes Feminism to the Limit

Review: My Dinner With Andrea from Charlotte’s Off-Broadway

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Thanks largely to Anne Lambert and Charlotte’s Off-Broadway, the Queen City’s fiercest proponent of homegrown professional theatre and her spunky little company, we have now seen two provocative new plays by her sister, Susan Lambert Hatem. Not surprisingly, since Lambert is also a founding member of Chickspeare – “all female, all Shakespeare, all the time” was their catchphrase – both of the Hatem plays we’ve seen have been spiritedly feminist.

Lambert directed Confidence (And the Speech) at Spirit Square in 2018 and now takes on the title role in My Dinner With Andrea. Charlotte’s Off- Broadway has moved off-Tryon to The Arts Factory, the stand-in of choice so far for resident theatre companies at Spirit Square while that facility is reconfigured. In Confidence, we had a former presidential aide who was willing to recount her role in crafting Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence speech, but only on the condition that she and her questioner playact the narrative – with her playing the President and the questioner portraying the aide, a role and gender reversal.

Like Confidence, Hatem’s new play is a reaction to the 2016 election. You might presume that an initial reaction would be angry and visceral, leading subsequently to a more reasoned and pragmatic response. This playwright is flipping that order. She’s angrier, more irrational and visceral now than she was three years ago.

Then her heroine was an academic who helped Hatem juxtapose Jimmy Carter’s reasoned, cautious, calculated, and inclusive methods of policy- and decision-making with the infamous 45’s. Furthermore, she showed us how naturally a woman (could the playwright have had Hillary in mind?) would fit into that more intelligent, deliberate, and statesman-like mold.

The anger and impulsiveness of My Dinner With Andrea indicate that there’s more than a little 2020 in Hatem’s fuel tank, firing up her engine. It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say that Andrea, portrayed by the playwright’s sister, is a female Donald. Or an amalgam of the two 2016 candidates? A devious entrepreneurial maniac who is more ambitious than 45, more pragmatic and intelligent, and less likely to run off the rails and flame out.

After tasting the bitter fruit of whistleblowing, Julia Grace Brandt is a research scientist who can use a job that utilizes her talents without compromising her integrity. She agrees to meet with an old, somewhat estranged friend, Andrea Ranger, who has become a renowned A-lister, on a first-name basis with Serena Williams, multitudes of glitterati, and key influencers. Divorced twice, if I counted correctly, with no kids – and no-thank-you on the subject of motherhood.

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Andrea’s next great entrepreneurial target, one that Julia is supremely equipped to spearhead, is the development of a wondrous vaccine, distributed globally, that will wipe cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s from the face of the earth. Lurking behind those wonders will be a genetic side-effect of ridding mankind of men – or at least skewing the female-to-male birthrate ratio from 50-50 to a more comfortable 70-30, if not north of that.

“The future is female,” Andrea says, not kidding at all, though the phrase is familiar. As happens occasionally in dystopian sci-fi epics, she wishes to speed the process.

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Certainly, there are sufficient urgent crises facing humanity – and more than sufficient patriarchy screwups – to justify Andrea’s design and haste. Likewise, there are reasons why the highly principled Julia will sit there, hear Andrea out, and negotiate rather than simply walking away. For one, the fabulously wealthy Andrea will very likely make a fabulous salary offer to her old friend. More immediately – and temptingly – they are meeting at Miesha, the most chichi restaurant in all of Atlanta, and Andrea is having their waiter, William, bring out every single delicacy on the menu, from the appetizers to the desserts.

The meal of a lifetime for an unemployed lesbian.

So yes, the resemblance between My Dinner With Andrea and the 1981 movie, My Dinner With André (written by and starring André Gregory and Wallace Shawn), isn’t accidental. Hatem’s script is more purposeful, confrontational, and sexual, a pretty explosive combo in a space as small and intimate as The Arts Factory.

Utilizing the ubiquitous cellphone of 2021, Hatem can brief us on the upcoming action by simply having Julia confide in her partner by phone as she waits for Andrea to make a fashionably late entrance. Back in 1981, we needed Shawn’s voiceover, as he walked toward the restaurant, to clue us in.

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As the posh dinner and job offer unfold, Julia faces a couple of moral dilemmas informed by Hatem’s astute reading of 2020 and the Trump Era. Most obvious is the quandary that many who signed on to 45’s heinous administration ultimately faced. Should I risk soiling my reputation by joining this malignant organization, compartmentalize my work into the good that it might accomplish, and try to curb or sabotage its leader’s megalomaniacal schemes? Or should I distance myself from this creep as far as possible?

If Julia actually takes home Andrea’s prospectus and considers her devil’s bargain, she will probably be gauging her chances of subverting her vaccine development enterprise so that only good comes out of it. Or she may be simply fortifying her powers of self-delusion, finding excuses for allowing herself to be bought off, and placing herself in danger of being outfoxed by Andrea and other members of her brain trust, making her a duped accomplice in their diabolical scheme.

Adding some West Wing gravity to this tête-à-tête, Andrea has Julia ink a non-disclosure agreement before revealing how she plans to change the world. Enhancing the intrigue and giving us a little foreshadowing, William assists in preserving confidentiality by ceremoniously relieving Julia of her cellphone – and her smartwatch. We may think Andrea’s security concerns are frivolous and overblown, but then Julia suddenly comes face-to-face with her second moral dilemma, a climactic #MeToo moment that hatches more confrontation and dispute.

Echoes of that moment reverberated with me during the drive home, for I kept thinking how the incident would sit with Julia on her drive home and when she talked things over with her partner. Does what just happened potentially give her extra leverage down the road if she accepts Andrea’s job offer?

Tracie Frank plays Julia with such elegant cool that I could easily imagine her factoring this possible leverage into her ultimate calculus, for if the world isn’t in such dire straits that Andrea’s remedies are truly necessary, it could be if the psychopath makes headway. Maybe director Marla Brown could have called upon Frank to devour the culinary delights arrayed before her with more gusto to point up her susceptibility to temptation, but we see more than enough Epicurean enthusiasm to suspect there might be chinks in her armor. Frank’s is a nicely calibrated performance when you weigh it accurately, with the simmering rage of an unrepentant whistleblower often lurking beneath the surface.

Lambert has the juicier role as Andrea, seemingly with a green light to go all the way to a “Hillarump” Hillary+Trump if she pleases. Yes, we see her regally dangling all sorts of perks in front of her prey, flexing her wealth, but she also has a shrewd respect for Julia’s scruples, sees that bribery needs to be supplemented with down-to-earth charm and statistical persuasion to have her way. Brown doesn’t rein Lambert in to the extent that her confidence in emerging victorious – now at the restaurant and ultimately in the future – ever seems to wane, but she definitely credits Julia with being a formidable and admirable antagonist.

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Matt Howie rounds out the cast as William, nicely complementing his elders. His youth and suave servility give a nice edge to Andrea’s cougar tendencies while cloaking her true motives, and his smiling condescension subtly puts Julia in her place – maybe steeling her spine.

While My Dinner With Andrea compares favorably with My Dinner With André – and with her earlier Confidence – I do wish Hatem had been more thorough in her research, which would have made this Dinner richer in its logistics. Male birthrates actually outpace female birthrates in today’s world, particularly in Asian countries where cultural influences and social engineering are in play, skewing the numbers. You can compound the steepness of that climb with other hills, including the FDA, the CDC, and anti-vaxxers.

How would Andrea outmaneuver and circumvent all those obstacles? Concrete answers would certainly bring this archvillain’s fiendishness to a loftier level. Asking those questions would also sharpen Julia’s acumen.

Fully embracing those considerations, a Dinner 2.0 could be a provocative knockout. Meanwhile, without fully sweating the details, Hatem’s lively play certainly begins offers us a different path to discarding democracy for the sake of a better tomorrow. Sadly, it also makes more sense than the path pursued by 45’s insurrectionists.