Christina Wright

First Stage steps up to the plate for “Jackie and Me”

The company's latest adventure pairs a time-traveling young boy with Jackie Robinson, in a play that doesn't shy away from the issues of racism implicit in his story.

By - Apr 9th, 2013 12:16 pm

JackieAndMePosterFirst Stage Children’s Theater director Jeff Frank’s face lights up as he explains the impetus behind his theater company’s staging of their next play, Jackie and Me.

“I saw a production of Jackie and Me in Seattle,” Frank said. “I found it to be a really powerful story and a unique way to look at the journey of Jackie Robinson. Dan Gutman [the author of the book the play is based on], has a creative way of telling a story—a young boy has the magical power of holding a baseball card and, if he wishes hard enough, he can travel back to visit that time and player. ”

“There’s a sense of adventure, a sense of humor and mystery about the piece,” Frank said. “Not only are we witness to Jackie’s incredible story, we also see the journey of this young boy. We see him in present day where he has struggles of his own: his parents have separated, he’s struggling with his temper and how he deals with his emotions. He discovers how he is going to lead his life in the future having met Robinson in the past.”

It’s a big task, moving from the present to the past and back again, but Frank knows that his crop of actors are up to the challenge. The actors double-cast as Joey, the time-traveling lead character, are both veterans on Milwaukee stages: Seth Horne was one of the Charlies in First Stage’s production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and John Brotherhood was recently Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird at the Rep. “They are both onstage the entire time, sharing this story with us,” Frank said. “There are moments of directly addressing the audience when Joey’s discovery is so powerful he’s got to share it with us. The very first thing he tells us is, ‘Hey! When I hold a baseball card something magical can happen.'”

"Jackie and Me" features a time-traveling kid whose magic baseball card gives him the chance to meet Jackie Robinson.

“Jackie and Me” features a time-traveling kid whose magic baseball card gives him the chance to meet Jackie Robinson.

Chauncy Thomas plays Jackie Robinson. Frank says that Thomas has a real gift for bringing emotional clarity to his roles, as he did in First Stage’s Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly. Despite having no background in baseball, Thomas has been working very hard to look the role. “He’s been working on his swing, his fielding position, sliding into home,” Frank said. “He studies film of Robinson, studying his stance and other nuances.”

Frank gave high praise to both the production and set design team for their ability to suggest the many locations the story takes place in, from inside buildings to outside at baseball games. “Jackie and Me moves so quickly from place to place,” he said. “Overall, we wanted the set to feel like an homage to baseball as a whole. You’ll walk in and feel like you’re in a baseball museum exhibit with oversized bats and balls. There’s a painted pattern on the floor that looks like an outfield. We’re using projections as a scenic element—at first it just shows the play’s logo, then it becomes a scoreboard at a little league game, and so on.”

Jackie and Me conveys its message with an honesty that permeates the larger, more uncomfortable issues of racism central to Jackie Robinson’s story. First Stage recommends the show for ages 8 and up—the tough facts about discrimination are handled with softer language than one will hear in 42, the upcoming feature film about Robinson opening April 12. “April 15 is Jackie Robinson Day in the major leagues,” Frank says. “It just so happens that movie studios and I think alike.”

Since Jackie and Me deals with the story of a real person, there are special extras for families who come out to see the show. Dennis Biddle, the youngest surviving Negro League player, will be at the 4 pm performances on Saturday, April 20 and Saturday, May 4 to answer questions about his experiences. Biddle once had dinner at Robinson’s home and says his life was immediately changed upon meeting the legend.

Jackie and Me is a big play — big societal issues, lots of time travel, and the story of a larger-than-life person. It runs for 85 minutes, longer than most First Stage productions, but it will surely be worth the time spent in the theater.

First Stage’s production of Jackie and Me, adapted by Steven Dietz, runs April 12 to May 5 at the Todd Wehr Theater. Tickets start at $14 and can be purchased online or at (414) 273-7206.

Categories: Sports, Theater

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