Imagine how difficult it was for Black men playing baseball in the Negro American Leagues in the 1920s to 1950s. They faced so much racism, prejudice and hatred, especially when playing games in the deep South. Think about how difficult their lives were, going into places where Jim Crow was alive and well and Black men were getting hanged. Think of stepping onto a field and having white people in the stands shouting out their hatred for the Black players during games, especially if they showed up the white players. Now take that imagination and think of how much worse things would have been for a Black female player playing professional baseball in the Negro American Leagues. For the first Black female baseball player. That is the story of Toni Stone, who played for the Indianapolis Clowns.
Playwright Lydia R. Diamond tells us the detailed story in her new play “Toni Stone,” presented by Roundabout Theatre Company and playing at the Laura Pels Theatre Arnold and Miriam Steinberg Center on W. 46th Street in Manhattan. Diamond introduces us to Toni Stone, who, as a child, was obsessed with baseball. She loved the feel of the glove and the ball in her hand. She got excited about playing baseball in the same way other girls got excited about boys. She learned all the stats about famous baseball players and was quick to quote them to anyone who would listen. Toni had a hard time at first being taken seriously. Her own parents did not want their little girl to do sports, they wanted her to be more on the feminine side in her pursuits.
Before Toni became a professional baseball player, she had to deal with issues with her parents, she had to deal with not having access to learn and play the game and having to find inventive ways to avail herself to learn from white coaches teaching the game to their white boy players. Toni was someone who was not only passionate about playing ball, but she was an excellent player, often able to out play the boys. When she was drafted onto the Indianapolis Clowns she was often able to out play the men. You can’t imagine what she went through with her fellow Black teammates. The jealousy was real with one of the players, while the others simply accepted and appreciated her gifts.
Diamond, by having Toni Stone tell us her journey, allows the audience to know the nicknames of all the players she worked with on the Clowns, including Stretch, King Tut, Spec, Elzie, Jimmy and Woody. You also hear about the challenging issues the team faced with finding places to sleep when they traveled to towns for games. The team would find themselves at the local whorehouses, where the Black owners would put the men up and they would be fed or they would go to Black people’s homes to eat. Toni ended up meeting Millie who ran a whorehouse and treated her like gold. She was so proud of Toni, as she felt that Toni was representing all Black women out there.
“Toni Stone” delivers quite an education about this baseball legend and one that I definitely was not familiar with. The play has laughs, touching moments and moments of triumph. The cast is splendid! April Matthis is absolute perfection as Toni Stone. She plays the role with heart, focus and shows great comic timing. What’s really wonderful and different about this play is that the cast, which consists of Matthis and eight Black men, has the men playing the roles of Black women in various scenes. A very memorable character was that of Millie the whorehouse owner played by Kenn E. Head. He handled that role with such style, humor and sincerity. The rest of the cast also delivers engaging performances and includes Harvy Blanks as Alberga; Eric Berryman as Stretch; Phillip James Brannon as King Tut; Daniel J. Bryant as Spec; Jonathan Burke as Elzie; Toney Goins as Jimmy; and Ezra Knight as Woody. This ensemble’s sports moves and clowning around is choreographed by someone who has been very busy and is fabulous, Camille A. Brown, who also currently has “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Delacorte Theatre to her credit and had the Broadway play “Choir Boy” recently. The cast’s performances are also marvelously brought together under the impeccable direction of Pam MacKinnon.
“Toni Stone” is a play to share with the young people so they can learn about this marvelous Black woman who played a distinctive role in the place of women in baseball and paved the way for women to be accepted into this sport.
Diamond is a thought-provoking, enlightening writer and we are lucky to have her. Go get enlightened about Toni Stone! For ticket information visit roundabouttheatre.org.