Toni Stone is an unjustly little known hero and trailblazer. The first woman to play professional baseball in the Negro Leagues of the 1940s and 1950s, she is now the subject of Lydia R. Diamond’s excellent play, produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company (Laura Pels Theatre, to Aug. 11), which uses its subject’s name succinctly as its title.
The beguiling magic of Toni Stone the play, directed by Pam MacKinnon (and based on Martha Ackmann’s 2010 biography, Curveball), is many-fold, but it is heralded by a charming and emphatic performance by April Matthis in the title role of Stone herself, and Diamond’s script, which has both a lightness of touch and resonant depth.
Matthis tells us Stone’s life story with a directness and wit. She has a charming, understated eccentricity, and it is a story that both interrogates the racism and sexism of the times, but also, and most memorably, Stone’s joy at playing the game. We begin the play with a beautiful meditation on how the ball feels when it lands in a glove.
Bright stadium lights are packed at the back and around the stage, and the general setting Riccardo Hernandez evokes is of a locker room, though the space is versatile, even becoming a baseball diamond. But the entire space is given over to Matthis, who is just as engaging a solo performing magnet as Heidi Schreck in What the Constitution Means to Me.
Around Matthis-as-Stone are eight male teammates who also double as other significant figures in Stone’s life, including her best female friend, Millie (Kenn E. Head), husband Alberga (Harvy Blanks), and Sydney Pollack, the white owner of the Indianapolis Clowns, the team Stone joined, at first a publicity move by the white owners—the sexist commercial thinking being, Gosh, a woman playing baseball, they’ll pay to see such a freakish sight!
Stone doesn’t fit neatly into any category, and Matthis varies the tones and shades of her performance accordingly. When Alberga physically threatens her, she reminds him who holds the bat in this relationship. She is judgmental about Millie being a prostitute. She challenges the owners of the Indianapolis Clowns, where she plays, over them using her as little more than a publicity stunt, forcing her to compromise her ability on the baseball diamond.
On stage, there are bursts of physical activity, even the partial reconstruction of innings. The company of men (Eric Berryman, Phillip James Brannon, Daniel J. Bryant, Jonathan Burke, Toney Goins, and Ezra Knight) are generously written for, and the perfect chorus and foil for Matthis.
Matthis conveys Diamond’s story with a controlled intensity, which she sometimes slackens in simple, very effective ways, such as breezily signaling when her character is about to become a little girl. More than anything, Stone’s love of the game shines through the script; it is that commitment, pride, and strength, rather than an overt desire to combat prejudice, that motivates her. The latter happens thanks to the former.
There is one piercing moment, which comes with no words, when we see all too graphically the kinds of physical injuries Stone sustained through the malicious actions of her fellow players. Her dress is significant too: Costume designer Dede Ayite kits her, and the men, out in crisp baseball uniforms; and then, off-pitch, Stone looks just as commanding and beautiful in a masculine blazer. You realize she resolutely played her own game, 24-7.
On your way in or out, or in intermission, you can read about Stone’s life after the Indianapolis Clowns on a board (she died, aged 75, in 1996), or buy Ackmann’s book, which is also for sale. Stone emerges as such a fascinating figure, thanks to Diamond’s words and Matthis’ gold-star performance, that you only want to know more about her after the play ends. The shame is that so many of us, before this play, likely knew nothing at all.