In a 1945 essay, George Orwell described sports as “war minus the shooting.” That same year, Jackie Robinson tried out for the Boston Red Sox. In 1947 he was the first black player to stand on a major-league field in what was considered a white man’s game. His story, which is related in Children’s Theatre Company’s newest production, “Jackie and Me,” gives Orwell’s statement a chilling clarity.
Steven Dietz’s play, an adaptation of Dan Gutman’s book by the same name, retells the story of Robinson’s challenge to the color line in baseball through the eyes of a young boy living in present-day Pittsburgh. Joey Stoshack has a love for baseball, an out-of-control temper and a very special power that allows him to transport himself back in time just by holding a baseball card in his hand. What better way to research his school assignment for Black History Month, he reasons, than to visit Brooklyn in the 1940s, just in time to witness Dodgers owner Branch Rickey sign up Robinson as the first black player on his team?
In the role of Joey, Brandon Brooks capably drives what is as much a story of self-discovery as it is a history lesson. Combining charming naiveté with an insouciant sense of adventure, he becomes an ambassador into a past that includes whites-only drinking fountains and segregated baseball teams. A chance meeting allows him to strike up a friendship with Robinson, putting him on the spot to see the raw anger unleashed by Robinson’s challenge to the color line.
Ansa Akyea projects an aura of coiled energy and focused discipline as Robinson, shrugging off the insults and threats thrown at him both on and off the field. Other fine performances come from Dot McDonald, as Robinson’s wife, and James Ramlet, as Dodgers owner Branch and in a delightful cameo as an aging Babe Ruth. Spencer Harrison Levin lends a spiteful edge and cocky assurance to the roles of a couple of young men who serve as Joey’s nemeses in both the past and present day.
This production capably conjures the sound and feel of a baseball diamond, complete with reverberating play-by-play announcing, and director Marion McClinton choreographs the ebb and flow of the crowd scenes with an almost balletic sense. While “Jackie and Me” could easily bog down in didacticism, McClinton keeps the pace lively, while Brooks’ charm keeps the audience engaged in his journey.
“Jackie and Me” offers an insightful look at America’s game and what a very different game it used to be.
Lisa Brock writes regularly about theater.