Dallas — When Jackie Robinson took to the baseball diamond in Ebbet’s Field in 1947, making history as the first African-American baseball player to move from the Negro League to play Major League Baseball, who could have guessed that in 2015 our society would still have to be reminded via social media and hashtags that #BlackLivesMatter?
Jackie & Me, Dallas Children’s Theater’s latest staging of the youth drama adapted for the stage by Steven Dietz, based on Dan Gutman’s 1999 book, brings civil rights and racial equality front and center. And what better timing with all the controversy surrounding equality not only for people of color, but also for those who have been denied certain rights, such as marriage to whomever they love. The powerful play runs through May 17 and is produced in partnership with African American Repertory Theater.
Young Joey Stoshak lives, eats, sleeps and breathes baseball. In fact, when it’s time for Black History Month projects, his teacher admonishes him not to research a baseball player. But there he is on the list of approved subjects: Major League Baseball legend Jackie Robinson. As he explains at the start of the play, Joey has special powers. He doesn’t have to do his research in the library or online. All Joey has to do is hold a baseball card of the player he wants to meet, and he is able to time travel and do his research on a more immersive level. This time, Joey gets even more than he bargained for when he travels back in time to meet Jackie Robinson and shows up in 1947 as an African-American himself. The things Joey learns become more personal than just meeting a hero.
Joey is there when Brooklyn Dodgers Manager Branch Rickey makes the decision to add Robinson to his team. He witnesses the racial slurs Rickey hurls at Robinson to show him what he’s in for and if he can take it without losing his famous temper, which Robinson and Joey have in common. In the second act, there are more racial slurs and eye-opening moments in the form of “whites only” water fountains and back entrances for “colored” players. While cringe-inducing, everything Joey experiences is accurate for 1947 society, and director René Moreno doesn’t shy away from or soften any of the period-specific language or situations.
Christopher Sykes, making his DCT debut, plays Joey with the earnestness and honesty of a boy several years his junior. He doesn’t ever come off as a young adult playing a kid. Babakayode Ipaye (also appearing at DCT for the first time) plays Joey’s hero, Jackie Robinson. Ipaye has the presence of an athlete and plays Robinson with grace and charm. The scenes where Robinson’s temper flares are realistic, but controlled.
As Dodgers owner, Branch Rickey, among other roles, including one as a female student in Joey’s class; Mark Oristano is completely in his element as one of the few actors in the Metroplex with actual sports experience as a sports writer and commentator. (See Oristano’s list of favorite sports plays here on TheaterJones.) Oristano is all business as the Dodgers team owner, but sympathetic to Robinson and the challenges ahead for him and his family as he takes his place in history.
Moreno’s deft staging and pace make the story as compelling as its subject matter deserves. Linda Blase’s lighting design shines in the time travel sequences. Saturday afternoon’s audience of mostly older children was mesmerized.
Jackie & Me isn’t just a story about heroes or sports. It’s a gripping look at injustice and inequality. In a touching conversation between Joey and Robinson, Joey learns disturbing revelations about Robinson’s reality. In another scene, Joey has an encounter with a police officer for no other reason but the color of his skin. Sound familiar?
After the show, audience members 9 and older (which is the suggested age range for this production) are invited to write what they learned from the play on baseball-shaped cards to be displayed in the lobby area. Opening night’s cards included lessons like “Not to judge people by their skin color, but by the color of their hearts,” “Everyone should be treated equally” and “People should be judged by their character.”
Jackie & Me is a perfect springboard for family discussion about tolerance, acceptance and equality, especially in light of recent news headlines. In his report, Joey tells his class that Jackie Robinson is credited with changing America. Strides certainly have been made compared to 1947, even the 1960s, but unfortunately, there is still much to be done.