Rep’s ‘Toni Stone’ Is a Winner
Play deftly dramatizes life of first woman to play in Negro Baseball League.
The Milwaukee Rep’s important new production, Toni Stone, finds an engaging way to capture the heart and mental gymnastics of the first woman to become a professional member of the Negro Baseball League in the 1950s. Stone played second base for the Indianapolis Clowns who mixed comic relief with some profound power on the field.
With a contemporary feminine awareness wedded to a profoundly masculine yet segregated environment – and envisioning how a woman would deal with this, tomboy or not — playwright Lydia R. Diamond has fashioned an intellectually arresting mixture of the real Toni’s life with the locker room antics, routine slurs, roadside racism and swarthy sweat she had to live with as well as negotiate.
Director Tinashe Kajese-Bolden and choreographer Dell Howlett expertly meld with the playwright in constant circular movements allowing characters to slip invisibly out of and into characters, or mimic the team’s monotonous routines in colorful vignettes.
The staging is an intimate part of the success. The players become a sturdy part of the pattern. They double as furniture and their uniforms are silhouetted within the baseball field and its fence – the effects of scenic designer Tony Cisek. All the crafts experts have worked smoothly on this production, delayed a week by COVID-19 protocols. It runs only through January 30 at the Quadracci Powerhouse.
There is a profound emphasis on bawdy humor, so sometimes we swallow in mid-laugh because of contemporary awareness.
Actress Spencer handles the grin-and-bear-it aspects brightly – allowing us to laugh along and share her good humor. Enthusiastic and always moving, she brings a humanity and energy to Toni that is essential to our enjoyment, though she is sometime left hanging by the playwright if a quip or an aphorism doesn’t land hard enough.
Some of the playwright’s revelations have the audience way ahead of Toni, such as relying on the image of apron strings in the ending. But there is a more dynamic contrast to end the first act, when the audience is forced to confront itself as the lights refuse to dim.
Toni Stone requires a frequent mental shift between what we know was considered good raucous male humor in the 1950s and the more critical realities of today, with a fluent playwright aware of both. Some things work, such as the way the ball players ribaldly tease each other, and some things are more troublesome, as when one ball player tries to solicit Toni for sex – on the team bus! — or some details of her transition from baseball chum to married lady.
The performers should get applause for their devoted attention to dialect and detail – to the point that it seems wrong to single some out at the expense of others. But a standout is Enoch A. King, briefly a ball player but most known to the patrons for a bandana, flowing robe and mincing heavyweight strut as Millie, a brothel worker who does Toni’s hair and becomes a sage substitute mother – a performance of both wry and moving remarks, some of Diamond’s best writing.
Also impressive in demeanor and delivery is Sekou Laidlow as the older man who woos and marries Toni. Other actors given moments to sparkle are Lau’rie Roach as Jimmy, Eric J. Little as King, Geoffrey D. Williams as Spec and Dane Troy as Stretch.
The cast and crew contain many names new to the Rep as well as some stalwarts, given the co-production of the play with Atlanta’s Alliance Theater plus some creative ties to New York City’s Roundabout Theatre. In the last two years, Toni Stone has been presented by the Arena Stage and the Roundabout with different casts, but in February the company at the Rep will move to the Alliance stage.
Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.
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