Fifty years ago, in the spring of 1947, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, broke the color barrier to major league baseball when he announced the Dodgers would be bringing up Jackie Robinson from Montreal. Playwright Ed Schmidt has created an intriguing but highly disjointed fictional meeting between Rickey and legendary African-American celebrities Paul Robeson, Joe Louis and Bill (Bojangles) Robinson in a New York hotel room, wherein he attempts to manipulate these great men into helping ease the transition of Robinson into integrated baseball.
The basic flaw in Schmidt’s play is the lack of any true dramatic tension. The question of whether Rickey (Robert Walden) will promote Robinson (Sterling R. Macer Jr.) has been settled between the two before Robeson (William C. Carpenter), (Bojangles) Robinson (Harrison Page) and Louis (Shashawnee Hall) even arrive at the hotel room.
In a cathartic opening scene confrontation, Rickey tests Robinson by hurling the hateful epitaphs he knows Robinson must endure, snarling, “I want someone with guts enough not to fight back.” Finally, the doggedly persistent Rickey extracts a promise from the seething young ballplayer that for three years Robinson will refrain from striking back at the ferocious bigotry he will inevitably face. Once Rickey and Robinson come to that agreement, the drama ends.
The rest of the play pits the pioneering but self-serving white club owner, Rickey, against the rigid, black revolutionary Robeson in a duel of rhetoric. Rickey, the pragmatic capitalist, insists integration into baseball can happen only “one player at a time.” Robeson, the idealistic Communist, insists that big-league baseball must allow an “all Negro” team into the league to compete against the white teams and that the Negro League club-owners be compensated for the inevitable demise of their teams. Louis, Bojangles and Robinson are reduced to being spectators and intermittent commentators to this two-person war of words.
Sheldon Epps’ static direction never achieves any level beyond “in your face” confrontation, failing to flesh out the personalities of these legendary 20th century figures. On the plus side, the actors handle their roles with utter commitment.
Walden (late of “Lou Grant” and “Brothers”) is a bundle of opportunistic energy as the miserly but jovial Rickey, who is quite willing to manipulate the lives of three great men to further his own ends. Macer Jr. (“The Client,” “Homefront”) exudes the frustration and controlled fury of Jackie Robinson, who took the only path possible to prove his worth.
Carpenter lacks the deep vocal resonance of Robeson but is powerfully persuasive as he stalks the hotel room, challenging Robinson, Louis and Bojangles not to give in to what he considers the latest attempt by white society to subjugate his people. Page is quite nimble as the quick-to-please, elderly tap dance legend whose personal weak-nesses have forced him to keep working well past his prime. Hall offers a brooding, physically imposing presence as the boxing champion whose trust in others has led him to financial ruin.
As the play’s narrator, David Downing is a soothing commentator as the former bellhop, Clancy Hope, who was the witness to the historic meeting. As the younger Hope, Rugg Williams offers the closest thing to comic relief as he alternates between outright awe and exuberant opportunism in the presence of these African-American icons.
The set and lighting designs of Gary Wissmann and Kevin Mahan, respectively, create a very believable Manhattan hotel environment. The costumes of Christina Haatainen and the sound design of Jeff Willens do much to evoke the mood of the period.