You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting

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.

Bellboy - Jeremiah Wayne Birkett
Joe Louis - Ron Canada
Paul Robeson - Willie C. Carpenter
Bill (Bojangles) Robinson - Nick LaTour
Jackie Robinson - Sterling Macer Jr.
Branch Rickey - Arlen Dean Snyder

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.

Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting

Cassius Carter Center Stage, San Diego; 225 seats; $29.50 top

Production: Old Globe Theater presentation of a drama in one act by Ed Schmidt. Directed by Sheldon Epps.

Creative: Sets, Ralph Funicello; costumes, Christina Haatainen; lighting, Barth Ballard; sound, Jeff Ladman. Reviewed May 9, 1992.

Cast: Bellboy - Jeremiah Wayne Birkett
Joe Louis - Ron Canada
Paul Robeson - Willie C. Carpenter
Bill (Bojangles) Robinson - Nick LaTour
Jackie Robinson - Sterling Macer Jr.
Branch Rickey - Arlen Dean Snyder

More Legit

  • Hadestown review

    Broadway Review: 'Hadestown'

    “Hadestown” triggered a lot of buzz when this wholly American show (which came to the stage by way of a concept album) premiered at Off Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop in 2016. Arriving on Broadway with its earthly delights more or less intact, this perfectly heavenly musical — with book, music and lyrics by Anaïs [...]

  • Burn This review

    Broadway Review: Adam Driver, Keri Russell in 'Burn This'

    The ache for an absent artist permeates Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This,” now receiving a finely-tuned Broadway revival that features incendiary performances by Adam Driver and Keri Russell, playing two lost souls in a powerful and passionate dance of denial. AIDS is never mentioned in this 1987 play, yet the epidemic and the profound grief that [...]

  • White Noise Suzan-Lori Parks

    Listen: The 'Dumb Joke' Hidden in 'White Noise'

    Suzan-Lori Parks’ new play “White Noise” tackles a host of urgent, hot-button topics, including racism and slavery — but, according to the playwright, there’s also a “dumb joke” buried in it. Listen to this week’s podcast below: Appearing with “White Noise” director Oskar Eustis on “Stagecraft,” Variety‘s theater podcast, Parks revealed that the inspiration for [...]

  • Adam Driver appears at the curtain

    Adam Driver on Starring in 'Burn This' for a Second Time

    The Hudson Theatre’s new production of “Burn This” marks its first Broadway revival since it premiered on the Great White Way in 1987, but Adam Driver is no stranger to the work. He starred as Pale in a Juilliard production of the Lanford Wilson drama when he was still a student — and only now, [...]

  • Alan Wasser

    Alan Wasser, Tony-Winning Broadway General Manager, Dies at 70

    Alan Wasser, a veteran Broadway general manager who received an honorary Tony Award, died from complications from Parkinson’s disease in New York on Sunday. He was 70. Wasser founded Alan Wasser Associates and general managed “Les Misérables,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Miss Saigon,” three of the most successful productions of all time. He [...]

  • Aretha Franklin Clinton inauguration

    Pulitzer Prizes: Aretha Franklin, Trump Tax Cheating Story Honored

    Donald Trump will have something to hate tweet about this afternoon. The Pulitzer Prizes awarded two hard-hitting investigations into the 45th president during its annual ceremony on Monday. The New York Times earned a prize in explanatory reporting for an 18-month investigation into the elaborate steps that Trump and his family went to in an [...]

  • A German Life review

    London Theater Review: Maggie Smith in 'A German Life'

    How helpful are warnings from history? Two years ago, in February 2017, Amazon briefly sold out its entire stock of Hannah Arendt’s 500-page treatise, “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” In it, the German-born philosopher surveys the conditions that gave rise to Nazi rule, charting fascism’s incremental creep. Social shifts are slow, sometimes too slow to spot, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content