Marcenia “Toni” Lyle Stone (1921-1996) was the first woman to play professional ball. In the 1940s, she played in the Negro League. A bio-play written about such a groundbreaking career would be expected to detail all the problems, if not horrors. The male players didn’t want her. She wasn’t allowed access to the locker room. On the road, she had to stay in brothels. She repeatedly took physical abuse from players, wanting to take her out of the game. The team owners treated her as a novelty to boost ticket sales. And on top of that, she faced racism and gender stereotyping regarding a woman who played hard ball.
While all of these obstacles are dramatized in “Toni Stone,” which opened Thursday at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, Lydia R. Diamond has written a play that’s very sly, even magnificently off-center, in its presentation of the title character. In the beginning, the men around Stone (April Matthis) are a great, jovial, entirely supportive bunch. She calls the players on her team “my boys… I call ‘em that, but I don’t think you allowed to call them that.” She has kind things to say about her team’s white owner (Eric Berryman), explaining, “Nice man, good heart, pays better than the other owners, white or black.” There’s even an Irish-Catholic priest (Toney Goins), who puts the young Toni on a boys’ baseball team as soon as he spots her astounding talent, because “the boys finally got a taste of winning and decided it was infinitely better than what they thought would be the humiliation of being out played by a girl. So they want her to stay.”
For much of the first act, Stone’s biggest obstacle appears to be another woman, her mother (Ezra Knight), who prefers that she figure skate. It’s more gender “suitable.”
The most oft-repeated words in “Toni Stone” are variations on “Did I tell you about?” spoken directly to the audience. Playing Stone, Matthis often resembles Giulietta Masina if Masina ever did stand-up comedy. There’s an extreme naivete at work here. Where Masina’s characters were usually blinded by love, Matthis’ ballplayer is focused on the game to the exclusion of almost everything else. Almost, because Stone isn’t dumb. Diamond takes her time to turn this athlete’s dogged optimism into a stoicism that she wears as a comic mask.
Nine players are needed to make a baseball team, and director Pam MacKinnon’s ensemble of nine actors wear jerseys (costumes by Dede Ayite) that read “clowns” across the chest. Stone’s team is the Indianapolis Clowns, which is one of those factual details that the literary gods sometimes give a writer; and Diamond, along with MacKinnon, Matthis and the other actors run with it. (The play is based on the biography “Curveball” by Martha Ackmann.)
MacKinnon avoids the trap of so many sports plays, attempting to re-create the suspense of a real game on stage. Camille A. Brown, who provided the wonderful (and Tony-nominated) choreography for another play, “Choir Boy,” is equally kinetic in her work here. Together, she and MacKinnon give a semblance of the game, often played out at the edges of the stage, while Matthis is down front talking directly to us. Never do they attempt to replicate the actual game. Much flashier are the set pieces where all nine actors are literally turned into clowns on the playing field, because that’s what the white fans expect: black clowns. It’s very funny, until it’s suddenly not.
The real Toni Stone proudly wore her bruises and cuts earned on the playing field as a black-and-blue badge of courage. Diamond’s Stone is more circumspect, and eschews any obvious theatrics. It’s not that she’s oblivious to what’s happening around her. She’s simply focused and driven to play ball. She looks at a baseball the way other women look at men. One of the delicious casting coups written into the script is having Stone’s only female friend being a prostitute played by a male actor (the beautifully understated Kenn E. Head) who is double cast as a teammate, as are virtually all of the performers. Head’s cross-dressing here echoes Will Decker’s well-traveled “La Traviata” (recently retired from the Met Opera), wherein Violetta lived and died in a male-dominated world; even the female choristers wore men’s clothes.
The other surprise is Stone’s falling in love with a man (the deceptively accommodating Harvy Blanks), because being a tomboy, she’s hit with the usual accusations of lesbianism. Stone’s resistance to her suitor fuels the drama, as well as much of the comedy, and is every bit as endearing as Masina’s fool-hearted quest for a man in “The Nights of Cabiria.” And the consequences are nearly as dire.
“Toni Stone” is a very serious slow-burning comedy, one that, like its heroine, doesn’t wear injustice on its sleeve. Rather than complain, this ballplayer keeps repeating her amazing stats, not just to us but to herself. Diamond ekes out a happy ending of sorts, but as any great athlete knows, the game doesn’t go on forever for anybody.