Stage One Family Theatre commemorates Black History Month with a play about Jackie Robinson, the first African American man to play in baseball’s major leagues. The first baseman broke the unwritten color barrier in 1947. The story takes a contemporary student back in time to witness Jackie Robinson’s historic first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Playwright Stephen Dietz adapted the play from Dan Gutman’s novel, a volume in his “Baseball Card Adventures” series.
Directed by Andrew D. Harris, the play revolves around young Joey Stoscack, a baseball player and card collector who can travel back in time using baseball cards from the year of his destination. Joey, who has trouble controlling his temper on the ball field, is benched for fighting right before receiving a school assignment to create an oral report on a significant character in Black American history. He’s obsessed with baseball trivia and history, so of course he chooses Robinson.
Joey travels back to the day Robinson signed with the Dodgers and befriends the baseball legend and his wife for those tense first weeks on the field, and encounters some surprises along the way. He witnesses Robinson’s first games at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field and the initial chilly reception he received from his teammates. Joey even goes on the road with the team to see Robinson and his wife turned away from the hotel that housed the rest of the team, but he also witnesses Louisville native Pee Wee Reese make a public gesture of friendship to Robinson on the field amidst high-charged racial slurs and threats.
It’s a thoughtfully layered storyline that incorporates age-appropriate lessons about racism, choosing your battles, and realizing your potential. It also demystifies a baseball legend well known in a public, but not necessarily a private, light.
“I don’t really remember, in all of my years in school, covering Jackie Robinson,” says Jeremy Sonkin, who plays Robinson. “I knew the basics about him and I knew a lot of what he contributed to baseball, but I didn’t get to dig into who he was as a person.”
Sonkin says that in an odd way, the script’s racially-charged language helps him keep his performance grounded.
“One of the biggest tests for me was learning to deal with the hate that he had to face everyday,” he says. “That is probably the thing in the show that is the easiest to keep authentic, because they are real words. I know this is the world of the play, but they’re still words that hurt.”
The Chicago native studied the facts of Robinson’s life and career to recreate significant details like Robinson’s batting stance, but in some ways found playing a historical character a challenge.
“When you take on a real-life person, you want to keep it as real as you can. Especially someone like Jackie Robinson,” he says. “It’s difficult because there’s lots of autobiographical things and a lot of documentaries but, I mean, it’s not like today when you can really look into someone’s life and hear them talk.”
Stage One performs ten matinees every week for area school groups. Two public performance will be staged on February 23 in the Kentucky Center’s Bomhard Theatre.