America's pastime in a time of change

NEW YORK — In 2015, April Matthis won an Obie Award for sustained excellence as an actor, having played almost every kind of role off Broadway could offer. Or so I thought until I saw her as half of the strangest — and in some ways the loveliest — love story ever.

America's pastime in a time of change

I’m talking about her terrific performance as Toni Stone in the play of the same name by Lydia R. Diamond, in which the other half of the love story is a 9-inch sphere of horsehide, rubber and yarn.

Stone, who in 1953 became the first woman of any race to play in a professional baseball game, was obsessed since childhood with the sport — and thus with its main piece of equipment. “It is round, and small, and it fits right there in your hand,” she says, expressing the same kind of longing she’s heard other girls express about boys.

Diamond’s play, which opened Thursday at the Laura Pels Theater, tracks Stone, whom history has almost forgotten, from her tomboy youth on the sandlots of St. Paul, Minnesota, to her years of barnstorming with men’s exhibition teams, to her historic first at-bat for the Indianapolis Clowns of the professional Negro Leagues. It considers her character — and those of the men she played with — in the context of social change reshaping the field and the country.

Baseball biography is not usually a promising dramatic genre. (“Bronx Bombers,” largely about Yogi Berra, lasted barely an inning on Broadway in 2014.) Sports plays in general — not to mention those supported by industry cartels, as this Roundabout Theater Company production is supported by Major League Baseball — invite bathos and boosterism.

But Diamond, author of “Stick Fly” and “Smart People,” has avoided that trap. “Toni Stone” is at its considerable best whenever, like its main character, it’s at its most unconventional. The spiky rhythm of Pam MacKinnon’s direction; the unvarnished quirkiness of the eight-man ensemble supporting Matthis; the astonishing, dancelike movement (by Camille A. Brown) that expresses the game without mimicking it — all contribute to the feeling that we’re learning something new, but also in new ways.

Not that Stone’s career unfolds for us in any orderly fashion; the flip side of Diamond’s success in delivering the story’s unconventionality is that she whiffs some of its conventional elements. Putting the play in a memory frame, narrated by Stone, allows her to jump around in time and place, but as a result you often aren’t sure what state, team or decade you’re in. Riccardo Hernández’s unit set — just bleachers, bats and frames of floodlights — is deliberately nonspecific, as if to suggest the larger, cosmic arena in which the story plays out.

Even the exact nature of the historic achievement is smudged; I didn’t understand, until I read about it later in her 1996 obituary, that Stone played professionally for only two seasons. Nor with such a blurry timeline can Diamond lead the story to a clear sense of climax and closure; the second act drags a bit.

No matter: Matthis’ characterization holds everything together, which is all the more astonishing because most of it must be her invention, built on the armature of Diamond’s pungent dialogue. (Though some audio from interviews of Stone exists, and a biography by Martha Ackmann was published in 2010, the record is thin and questionable.) As a result, Stone’s personality remains something of a puzzle.

That she may have preferred it that way is something I like about the role and the play; you never feel that you have a full grasp on her.

But Matthis does, absolutely. Without sanctimony or condescension, she gives us a woman who was prodigiously gifted, weirdly literal and totally in charge of her strange self. Even her peccadilloes become emblems of strength, as, for instance, when a teammate tells Stone he wouldn’t throw her out of his bed for eating crackers, and the sense of it entirely eludes her.

“Why would I eat crackers in your bed? Why would anyone eat crackers in a bed? They are very messy.”

Idioms — let alone sexual innuendo — are not something Stone understands. She prefers words that approach the irreducible facticity of her beloved baseball statistics. When a businessman named Alberga (Harvy Blanks) insists on buying her drinks at the dive she favors, she’s nonplused enough to ask her friend Millie what it means. Millie (Kenn E. Head) knows; she’s a prostitute at the brothel where some of the team puts up when in town.

Blanks, marvelous here in a romance even more unusual than Stone’s with baseball, plays one of the Clowns when he’s not the suave Alberga. Likewise, the touching Head toggles between prostitute and player, just by slipping a floral shift on or off. (The costumes are by Dede Ayite.) This simplicity of gender and racial transformation — to become white characters, the men pass a hand over their faces — allows MacKinnon to comment subtly on what has and has not changed over the years in our ideas about identity.

There’s great dignity in that, and in the way the play approaches race and gender in general. White oppression is of course a part of these black characters’ lives: Opposing players rough them up when sliding into base, opposing fans shout vile slurs. Worse, the team must perform, as part of each game, a kind of minstrelsy called “cooning” to allay white fears of their prowess. As staged by Brown, it’s funny until it’s awful.

And Stone, as a woman in sports, is doubly targeted, even by her own teammates. As they mock what they assume, despite Alberga, is her lesbianism, some also threaten her sexually.

But Diamond does not let these hostile interactions become the whole picture; sometimes she simply laughs them off. This is not to diminish the virulence of sexism and racism but to honor black men and women who through sheer force of will were able to preserve meaningful lives beyond it.

Athletics was a major vector for that. Stone describes baseball as a calling that, like faith, is both transformative and elevating: “turning what matters into something beautiful.” Whether you agree about the sport, it’s hard not to see in “Toni Stone” — and in Matthis’ performance — a notable demonstration of the idea.

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Production Notes

“Toni Stone”

Tickets: Through Aug. 11 at the Laura Pels Theater, Manhattan; 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.

Credits: By Lydia R. Diamond; directed by Pam MacKinnon; sets by Riccardo Hernández; costumes by Dede Ayite; lighting by Allen Lee Hughes; music and sound by Broken Chord; hair and wigs by Cookie Jordan; choreography by Camille A. Brown; fight direction by Thomas Schall; production stage manager, Charles M. Turner III; production management, Aurora Productions; “Toni Stone” general manager, Nicholas J. Caccavo; associate artistic director, Scott Ellis. Presented by Todd Haimes, artistic director/CEO; Julia C. Levy, executive director; Sydney Beers, general manager; and Steve Dow, chief administrative officer, in association with Samantha Barrie.

Cast: Eric Berryman (Stretch), Harvy Blanks (Alberga), Phillip James Brannon (King Tut), Daniel J. Bryant (Spec), Jonathan Burke (Elzie), Toney Goins (Jimmy), Kenn E. Head (Millie), Ezra Knight (Woody) and April Matthis (Toni Stone).

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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