'Kansas City Swing'|a CurtainUp New Jersey theater review
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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Kansas City Swing
The then already legendary forty-one year old Satchel Paige has yet to be hired by the St. Louis Browns. He has rounded up a team of all-stars from the Negro League during their off-season. They are barnstorming across the country for extra money with famed pitcher Bob Feller and his team of all-stars recruited from both major leagues.
A lot of history and a lot of changes have begun to happen in baseball with the hiring of the major league's first black player Jackie Robinson. Baseball history buffs may know about Satchel's disappointment, but also his own reasons in not pressing to be the first major league black player. Some of Satchel's disappointments as well as his hopes and dreams are rigorously expressed through Robert Karma Robinson's fine performance, as are the aspirations those of second baseman Buck O'Neil (an intense performance by Jacinto Taras Riddick) who was to become the major league's first Negro scout. Rivalry and tension among the other players on the traveling team are not only a product of the game but also a by-product of a time when integration and racial equality was as tentative a prospect as it was tremulous when it came to affairs of the heart.
Plenty of robust acting, under the Khan's sturdy direction, brings nuance and excitement into play and in to a play that supports its historical perspective with a bracing bit of melodramatic histrionics. "Somebody real smart once told me American history comes in two halves: Before Jackie, and After Jackie," says O'Neil in the first scene set in a baseball field outside Kansas City. With him are the other players, Feller (Christopher Kann), Art Young (Serge Thony), and Franky Palmieri (Joe Sinopoli), and Paige who is seen pushing the rolling chalk marker.
It takes a lot of baseball jargon, friendly baiting and cautious chiding, much of which is expository information, to lay the ground work for the dramatic fireworks that will follow. The primary action, however, is set in an elegant boarding house in Kansas City. Renowned for welcoming black guests and listed as such in the Green Book ("when traveling in America while Colored"), the residence's owner Mrs. Hopkins (Kim Brockington) evidently has a romantic history with Paige.
Part of that history is Paige's relationship with the beautiful and well-educated Mrs. Hopkins. She is a little taken back when "the king of colored baseball," tells her he's getting married in a month. That the widowed Mrs. Hopkins had chosen a rich dentist to marry years ago instead of Paige, has, however, enabled her to have a lucrative business for many years. Business, however, has begun to deteriorate on her side of town, as hotels on the other side of Kansas City have started to welcome black guests.
One of the more interesting socio-economic aspects of the time exposed in the play concerns the crumbling of the walls of segregation and how it also led to the failure of many small black businesses. Mrs. Hopkins makes it clear that the end is in sight with the dismissal of her staff.
The prospect of failure is not in the mindset of Mrs. Hopkins' daughter Moira (Katherine Ella Wood), who has her hopes pinned on becoming a jazz singer and gives a sampling with "Is You Is, or Its You Ain't My Baby. Unfortunately music makes only fitful appearances which from my perspective should have been used more assertively.
But, as it is, music is secondary to the mayhem that is caused by the flirtatious Moira. It is her unbridled sexuality that creates a situation at the boarding house with near tragic results, particularly as it affects Palmieri, the short-tempered, not-too-bright rookie-from-Brooklyn and the equally ambitious Young. A bit hokey, but it provides the main conflict in the play as well as the biggest clash among the characters. Except for one violent episode, this play relies on the testy and pervading turbulence among all the male characters.
Shared self reflection and personal stories make up a lot of the text, but most empowering is O'Neil's memory of the moment when he knew that "baseball's my life, man." He knew he was not going to go back to "plucking celery or cutting cane." Just as O'Neil expresses the sentiments of all the players, Mrs. Hopkins (a vibrant performance by Brockington) has a few wise words on responsibility for her daughter who is leaving home to walk into a life that her parents never dreamed was possible.
By the collaborators of Fly (their acclaimed 2009 play about the Tuskegee Airmen), Kansas City Swing may not really fly or even swing as implied, but it does pitch its story of the "oldest rookie in baseball and the first Negro to ever take the mound" with commendable earnestness and plenty of passion.
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