In 1947, Jackie Robinson cracked baseball’s color barrier, integrating the whites-only major leagues and gaining new opportunities for African-Americans. In the engrossing “Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting,” Ed Schmidt vividly depicts some of the pain behind that gain.
This is not, however, just another version of the Jackie Robinson story. How the man became a star player and Hall of Famer, after being carefully nurtured and promoted by Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, is history that’s very familiar. Moreover, most people assume that the move drew universal applause from black Americans.
Not so, as Schmidt’s play points out. The Dodgers’ signing of Robinson, followed by similar deals throughout the majors, led to the demise of the Negro Leagues, putting hundreds of black ballplayers out of jobs. Also, since resistance continued among many American and National League teams, few blacks got contracts, leading to charges of tokenism.
Schmidt’s device for dramatizing this impact is a meeting, called by Rickey, of himself, Robinson and the era’s most prominent black Americans: heavyweight champ Joe Louis, dancing star Bill (Bojangles) Robinson — no relation to Jackie — and singer-activist Paul Robeson. Such a gathering, Schmidt says in a program note, never took place, although Louis’ biography mentions one.
It matters not. The contrivance registers credibly, more so than a couple of others in the script. And it provides a powerful vehicle for analyzing issues of race and society that go beyond baseball and continue to be as pertinent as the recent Los Angeles violence.
Meeting also supplies a solid ensemble piece, because there are no minor roles. Even the Schmidt-created bellboy gets a rich slice of the theatrical action. And this group, under the knowledgeable direction of Sheldon Epps, does wonders. Most in the cast are playing people still easily remembered, and the actors — all of whom physically resemble their characters — recall them without doing strict imitations. Some of the verite doubtless stems from the insistence by Schmidt, who is white, on a black director.
Central are Sterling Macer Jr. as Jackie Robinson and Arlen Dean Snyder as Rickey. Macer (of TV’s “Homefront”) at first sounds too shufflin’ for the resolute, articulate Robinson, but then shows, in the heat of argument, the steel that would carry him through the years of verbal and physical abuse from players and fans. Snyder, looking very much the part in rumpled suit and shaggy eyebrows, gives Rickey the mix of religious belief, business shrewdness and PR skill that propelled him in his crusade to integrate baseball.
Ron Canada makes a fine Joe Louis, shown as simplistic, generous and impatient, heading into the physical and financial decline that troubled his final years. Nick LaTour is a dapper Bojangles, eager to please and avoid disputes, like Louis an avid spender on women, horses and gambling. And Jeremiah Wayne Birkett is the fictional and likable bellboy, whose recollection at age 62 opens and closes the story of when he was 17 and excited to be assisting what he calls a Negro Hall of Fame.
The play’s firebrand, as in real life, is Robeson, a man whose multifaceted accomplishments will outlive the furor over his radical politics, someday giving him deserved recognition as one of this country’s greatest heroes. Here Willie C. Carpenter, slighter than Robeson but still imposing, plays him in all his intellectual might, a proud man fierce in his pursuit of equality, with his arrogance–he calls Rickey “Branch,” something few people ever did–winning him respect as well as animosity. Carpenter’s penetrating stare serves him well as the confrontational Robeson, as quick to challenge compromising from blacks as bigotry from whites.
They’re all, of course, symbols, representing a spectrum from the well-meaning white to the radical black. Yet, as in all good plays, they’re full-bodied creations just on their own.
Equally superior is Christina Haatainen’s costume work, putting most of the men in the pinstriped, wide-lapeled suits of the late ’40s and showing how their emphasis on clothes differed. Ralph Funicello’s pleasant hotel room set, Barth Ballard’s lighting and Jeff Ladman’s sound design meet the minimal requirements.