A league of her own

Like theater, baseball has no set time clock by which the action must unfold. It takes as long as it takes to finish the nine innings. That can lead to longueurs, or it can raise the stakes. It all depends on the quality of the play and the players.

Fortunately, Lydia Diamond’s 2019 play Toni Stone, now in its local premiere at the Goodman under the careful and buoyant direction of Ron OJ Parson, is a curtain-to-curtain treat. The production is filled with passion, humor, and a clear-eyed view of what it takes to be the first—specifically, the first woman to play professional baseball full-time in the United States. Being a Black woman in the Negro Leagues just adds to the dramatic conflicts for Stone that Diamond anatomizes in her story.

Toni Stone Through 2/26: Thu 2 and 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM; also Sun 2/12 7:30 PM, Tue 2/21 7:30 PM, and Wed 2/15 and 2/22 7:30 PM; ASL interpretation Fri 2/24, touch tour and audio description Sat 2/25 2 PM (touch tour 12:30 PM), Spanish subtitles Sat 2/25 8 PM, open captions Sun 2/26 2 PM; Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, 312-443-3800, goodmantheatre.org, $25-$80

Toni Stone joins a distinguished line of American plays, including Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out and Christopher Moore’s The Last Season, in which the national pastime serves as the backdrop for larger social dramas. The latter (winner of the first Theodore Ward Prize for African American Playwriting, sponsored for several years by Columbia College Chicago) has the closest parallels to Diamond’s drama, as it illustrates the, well, last season of a Negro League team, where younger players look forward to the possibility of playing in the newly integrated majors and older players know they’ve struck out at that chance.

But Diamond, who found her earliest success on Chicago stages over 20 years ago, also draws on themes that have consistently found their way into her work over the years.

The daughter of a university professor, Diamond writes frequently about the balancing act that upper-middle-class professional Black people face in negotiating worlds still dominated by white supremacy. That overarching theme has been present throughout her work, including the early autobiographical solo The Inside, an interior monologue of a young Black woman at a party of mostly white people; Stick Fly, about family secrets among a group of wealthy Black people on Martha’s Vineyard; and Smart People, about four urban professionals confronting race and gender politics against the backdrop of a neuroscientist’s study on racism.

She’s also used the story of real women in history in her work before, perhaps most notably in Voyeurs de Venus, about Saartjie Baartman (or Sarah, as the name was Anglicized), the so-called “Hottentot Venus” who was taken from her home on the Eastern Cape of South Africa and eventually put on display and examined in Europe. Baartman’s anatomy, particularly her buttocks, was deemed somehow “freakish” enough that white people paid money to look at her.

The real Toni Stone didn’t have to go through quite that degree of horrific exploitation, and her story had a happier ending than Baartman’s, for sure. And while she wasn’t from the upper-middle-class, she did have a reasonably comfortable upbringing (first in West Virginia, then in Saint Paul, Minnesota) with her father and mother, a barber and a hairdresser. Her mother, as depicted in Diamond’s version, is none too pleased with her daughter’s love of the game and keeps trying to get her interested in more ladylike athletic endeavors, such as figure skating.

But being the first woman to play professional baseball, period, was always going to be challenging. Playing as a member of a Negro League team opened Toni up to racism and sexism on the field and off.

What makes Diamond’s play so irresistible is that it celebrates resiliency and the love of the game while never letting us lose sight of the constant grind that Stone and her fellow team members of the Indianapolis Clowns face. These include virulent racist slurs hurled by white fans. Especially when the Clowns decide that they’re not in the mood to let the white boys they’re playing in exhibition games win, as they are sometimes told they should do. Beating the white boys means that they then have to sprint from the field to the bus to avoid violence. And often, they’re sleeping on the bus because there are no motels in town that will rent them rooms at any price.

The world off and on the diamond is captured well in Todd Rosenthal’s set, which gives us the sepia nostalgic feel of a long-gone ball field, haunted by ghosts of players past. Projections by Mike Tutaj on the scoreboard backdrop suggest the long road trips through rural darkness (holding god knows what potential dangers) the Clowns endure, as well as the dark watering holes where Toni hangs out after games. Cristin Carole’s tight movement direction and intimate choreography provide both an exuberant ensemble portrait of what it’s like when ball players are in perfect sync with each other and a disturbing sense of how it feels when that connection on the field turns awkward or even abusive in private. 

Jon Hudson Odom and Tracey N. Bonner in Toni Stone Credit: Liz Lauren

Tracey N. Bonner’s Toni is an irresistible mix of grit and naivete, particularly when it comes to how she relates to two of her off-the-field friends. Chiké Johnson’s Alberga, an older man who likes to buy her drinks at one of the aforementioned watering holes, would like to make an honest woman of her, but it takes Toni a while to realize his intentions and to consider his proposal. Millie (Jon Hudson Odom) works in a brothel where the Clowns sometimes find respite, and she’s the only female friend Toni seems to have—even though Toni is capable of making thoughtless comments about Millie’s choice of profession. (Millie, like the real Toni’s mother, also knows how to work with hair, making her feel at times like a surrogate mom to the “tomboy” Toni, who prefers men’s suits to dresses.)

Toni’s story isn’t presented as a straightforward bio-play. In part, that’s down to the title character’s own quirks. “I am prone to rambling,” she tells us at the start. “Never could tell a story from beginning to end nice and neat.” So the narrative, too, jumps around a bit chronologically. There are plenty of fascinating details about the Negro Leagues included. The players were often expected to put on song-and-dance shows leading up to the actual game, in addition to playing nine hard innings of baseball, sometimes against white baserunners who had no problem going in with their spikes high and hard, even—or especially—if the infielder was a woman.

Diamond’s script and Parson’s ensemble are so good at fleshing out the other players and building the camaraderie between Toni and her teammates that a betrayal of that trust hits us like a fastball in the gut later in the play. One of Toni’s quirks is that she memorizes baseball stats obsessively, as if knowing the numbers and history of the game cold will somehow provide mental armor against the daily strains on the field and off. But while we never doubt her love for the sport, the toll it takes is also increasingly clear throughout the story.

The ensemble of Toni Stone at Goodman Theatre Credit: Liz. Lauren

That burden is shared by the other Clowns, including Edgar Miguel Sanchez’s bookish Spec, who is fond of quoting W.E.B. Du Bois; Kai A. Ealy’s King Tut, whose ability to slip into self-aware minstrelsy creates both laughter and discomfort; and Woody (Terence Sims), whose simmering rage and resentment at being denied better opportunities finds a target in Toni. 

But it doesn’t take much to become a target when you’re the only person who looks like you in your world. “Folks wanna all the time be mad at me,” Bonner’s Toni says late in the play. “An I’m doin’ all kinds of jumpin’ jacks, tryin’ to understand why and what I did, and figure out what they saying, so I don’t do it again . . . when someone work that hard to hear what I’m sayin?’”

Toni just wants to play ball and be the best she can be, but particularly for Black women, that path to excellence is never straightforward and often unrecognized. (Ask our vice president, for starters.) Yet by the end of Diamond’s play, we not only have a better understanding of Toni as a pioneer. We also treasure her as a person who was not without flaws but was never without guts. The time we’ve spent in her company feels valuable and irreplaceable. 

As were Toni Stone’s own undeniable achievements.

“I did something that no one else before me had been able to do,” says Bonner’s Toni. “I did it smart and I did it pretty and I didn’t listen when they said I can’t do a thing. I did a thing.” 

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