Lydia R. Diamond’s “Toni Stone” is about the first professional Black woman baseball player—scratch that, the first professional woman baseball player (who happens to be Black). That doesn’t mean race doesn’t factor into the equation. Au contraire, it is the flexibility of playing in the Negro Leagues that may have afforded Stone the opportunity at all. The white leagues, called “National” and “American,” incited a ban on women as players in 1952, one year before Stone joined the Indianapolis Clowns.
Toni Stone (Tracey N. Bonner), is so incredibly charming that you wish that you could pull up a bar stool next to her and talk baseball with her at her favorite watering hole, Jack’s Tavern. Ever so humble, Stone references her lack of education before waxing on lofty topics like religion, philosophy, physics and geometry, and displays an encyclopedic knowledge of baseball statistics. The character of Stone is disarmingly sweet, which helps the medicine go down when the show gets serious.
Nothing about Stone’s life is conventional. She reluctantly marries an older, wealthy businessman, Alberga (Chiké Johnson) and becomes best friends with the madam of a brothel, Millie (Jon Hudson Odom). The two act as her conscience, standing behind either shoulder offering advice, sometimes agreeing with each other. Neither completely understands Stone, at least not immediately. Both try to conform Stone to the stereotypical mold of what a woman is supposed to be like. Only at the end do they realize that the only person Stone can be, and deserves to be, is herself.
The bouncy cast of characters keep the yucks coming. King Tut (Kai A. Ealy) is a jokester in the vaudeville style. Spec (Edgar Miguel Sanchez) is a brainiac who regales his teammates with the etymology of curse words. Woody (Terence Sims) and Stretch (Travis A. Knight) are polar opposites, but both clearly opine to join the “big leagues” à la Jackie Robinson. Rufus (Matty Robinson) and Jimmy (Victor Musoni)) are good-natured and rambunctious, and Elzie (Joseph Aaron Johnson) is conflicted about, among other things, his sexuality.
As likable as these characters can be, make no mistake that this is a boy’s club. When confronting Stone, they can be real bastards. It never feels like she is one of the team, despite being better at baseball than most of them.
Ron OJ Parson’s direction is fast-paced and high-energy. Surrounded by a giant baseball pitch complete with stadium lights, a huge scoreboard and green wrought-iron bleachers, the players are diving for ground balls, jumping to catch a pop fly that comes from offstage and tumbling into back handsprings across home plate. In the program, movement director Cristin Carole praises Parson and the cast for being “committed” and not averse to “risk taking.” The players here are as much athletes as they are actors.
“Toni Stone” adeptly captures the dichotomy behind the American dream—that hard work and talent can overcome any obstacle—while shining a light on the absurd Black vs. white, men vs. women paradigm that has existed in this country since its inception. Full of history, herstory and heart, from the beginning you’ll be root, root, rooting for Toni Stone.
“Toni Stone” at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. Tickets are $25-$80 and can be found by visiting goodmantheatre.org or by calling the box office at (312) 443-3800. Runs through February 26.