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A CurtainUp Review
Toni Stone

I had to play. . .I wanted to find the heart of the game — Toni Stone
Toni Stone
April Matthis (Photo: Joan Marcus)
A bank of stadium lights flood the auditorium of Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre. Below them is the dugout with its benches. This sets the stage for Lydia R. Diamond's biographical Toni Stone,a play about the first woman to go pro as a baseball player in the Negro Leagues now having its world premiere. In her team uniform, Stone is the first character to make an appearance, but is quickly followed by the eight other African-American players who enter the bullpen.

But what makes these players special is that they are all male but will get to play multiple roles of both sexes and races. April Matthis appears as Stone and as narrator in the story that covers the highlights in the life and the career of a woman who wouldn't take no for an answer.

Diamond, whose excellent Stickfly was on Broadway during the 2011 season (review), has based her script on the biographical novel Curveball by Martha Ackmann. In it, April Matthis plays Stone with a playful grin that doesn't compromise her no-nonsense demeanor or her eagerness to set the score straight regarding her feelings the sport that loved best of all and about men whom she didn't think about all that much. She's a winning narrator through the play's time frame from the 1920's into the 1950's.

Stone's life may not have been given enough dramatic heft, there are enough personal insights to make it clear to us who she is not only to herself but to the world. Whether the play is presented as clearly as possible may also be a question to be answered by its director Pam MacKinnon. I think yes and no.

The feeling of playing ball through pantomime is beautifully executed by choreographer Camille A. Brown. And, of course, you really don't have to have a love of the game to embrace and to admire the spunk and the extraordinary stamina that defined this amazing woman who found a way to play with the best in the league, if not in the best of times. More importantly, we see Stone finding a way to live the life she loved.

The years and events that impacted Stone's life cover a lot of territory. It does take a while to adjust to Matthis's delivery that's half mumbled with a decided affectation to sound authentic. And the statistics and factoids that she rattles off are sure to be appreciated by fans. And the statistics and factoids that She often amusingly rattles off can only be appreciated by the most impassioned fans.

Stone's driving force seems to be sheer self determination. Though savvy about the game as she was naive when it came to men and romance.

For a woman whose passion was baseball to the exclusion of just about everything else, no man's attention or affection could compete, although we get glimpses of it in bars and with her teammates. Travelling with the team was a hardship for all considering the limited lodging available for people of color, and given that Stone needed special considerations and accommodations.

Set Designer Riccardo Hernandez provides enough movable set pieces to suggest various locations. It is made clear that the camaraderie of her team mates was also affected by jealousy with some resentment towards her as she was unquestionably exploited by management for profit.

Her marriage to Alberga (Harvy Blanks), a regular guy who won't take no for an answer, is given short shrift. Her continuing friendship with Millie (sensitively played without camp by Kenn E. Head), a "madam" in a bordello where Stone found lodging, solace and companionship is nicely integrated into her story. Millie serves as a kind of mothering mentor to Stone and their scenes are the play's most endearing and affecting.

Early friendships are not explored, although the text makes clear that Stone in her school years was excellent at sports and a trophy-winning figure skater. Championed by a Catholic Priest, we see "Tomboy Stone" grow up and go on the road. Insults and taunts questioning her morality that were hurled at her from some fans in the stadium didn't deter or dissuade her from living the life she wanted.

Born Marcenia Lyle Stone, Toni offers us bits about her experiences growing up in St. Paul where discrimination was a way of life. Since she has many stories to tell most of them are confined to bullet points. Our narrator's tendency to meander does take its toll as the play heads into the final inning.

Perhaps if the writing was a bit sharper and contained more melodramatic juice, the viewer's attention wouldn't wane as it does toward the play's quiet resolve. As for the cast. . .in spite of having to sort out the characters that Stone interacts with along the way, all the supporting actors are excellent and their characters impressively individualized. Most individualized of all is Stone who, through Ms. Matthis spot-on-performance, hits the winning run, even when all the bases aren't loaded.

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Toni Stone by Lydia R. Diamond
Directed by Tony Pam MacKinnon
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).
Choreography: Camille A. Brown
Sets:Riccardo Hernandez
Lights: Allen Lee Hughes
Costumes: Dede Ayite
Original Music & Sound Design: (Daniel Baker & Aaron Meicht
Stage Manager:Charles M. Turner III
Running Time: 1 hour and 30 Minutes
Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre 111 West 46th Street
From 5/23/19; opening 6/20/19; closing 8/11/19
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman at 6/14/19 press preview

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