‘Fly’ playwrights score another hit with ‘Satchel Paige’

‘Fly’ playwrights score another hit with ‘Satchel Paige’

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Rob Karma Robinson plays Satchel Paige in the M.V. Playhouse's current production. — MJ Bruder Munafo

“Work like you don’t need the money. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like nobody’s watching.”

Satchel Paige, one of the most famous players in baseball’s Negro leagues, is responsible for the above quote. Often repeated, it is included in the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse’s latest production.

Soneela Nankani and Stan Strickland in "Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing."
Soneela Nankani and Stan Strickland in “Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing.”

While baseball hall-of-famer Paige has been relegated these days to a footnote in history, in his own day he was a legend and certainly more than deserving of the sort of hero worship that has been bestowed upon other baseball greats by biographers and filmmakers.

In Richardo Khan’s and Trey Ellis’s new play, “Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing,” not only is Paige’s remarkable professional story — a stellar career as a pitcher in the Negro Major League and a short stint in the major leagues — brought to life, but the man who lived his life according the above quote is seen as the highly likeable, charismatic, and complex man that he was.

“Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing” is a rich, full spectrum of a show. There’s music — both a couple of ensemble songs from the period and some saxophone interludes, dancing, simulated ball playing, a dream sequence, a dramatic fight scene, and some extremely effective use of projections and lighting.

In fact, the entire piece is a masterwork of choreography. Players mime a practice session very realistically, throwing and hitting an imaginary ball. The difficult blocking of the multi-character dramatic scenes is executed without a hitch. And everything is authentic to the period, including Paige’s old-style wind up and delivery.

The play’s action takes place shortly after Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers as the first black player in the major leagues — in 1947, when Paige was 41. Paige was robbed of that distinction despite his reputation — among other ballplayers as well as fans — as the best player in all of baseball. Still, Paige is enjoyed great success and acclaim and, in his own way, is broke color barriers by taking part in a barnstorming tour with Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller. For many years, the two men led opposing teams that travelled together and played in major league parks during the off season, introducing many baseball fans for the first time to black players.

The story starts out during this tour on a ballfield, but most of the action takes place in a black-owned rooming house in Kansas City where a few of the ballplayers, including Paige and Feller, are lodging. The audience is introduced to the proprietress and her young daughter, an aspiring singer who is following in her mother’s footsteps. The inclusion of these fictional characters lends some Tennessee Williams-style drama and a considerable bit of sexual tension to the story. The boardinghouse scenes also lead to the relating of a few very funny anecdotes, the exploration of some of the issues faced by black ballplayers, and some nice repartee between Paige and his former love, Ms. Hopkins.

Ms. Hopkins is played by the remarkable Suzzanne Douglas, who has appeared at the Playhouse previously as both an actress and as a jazz singer. She is well known for her many television and film roles having starred in the sitcom “The Parent ‘Hood” as well as in several motion pictures including “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.” In the Playhouse production, she proves herself a very strong dramatic actress with a flair for comedy. It would have been nice to have been able to enjoy a bit more of Ms. Douglas’s considerable musical talents in the play.

The real revelation among the cast is the very versatile Rob Karma Robinson, a New York stage actor who has twice before appeared at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. In his most recent outing here as a member of the ensemble cast of “Fly,” we got a taste of Mr. Robinson’s acting chops as he played the most charismatic of the play’s Tuskegee airmen. As the star of “Satchel Paige,” Mr. Robinson proves that he can run the acting gamut — alternately joking with the boys and quoting from Homer’s “The Odyssey” — a very effective recurring metaphorical device used throughout the play.

Along with a strong cast, including Playhouse regular Christopher Kann, it is a delight to watch an actor of Mr. Robinson’s strength and range. He is clearly ready to break into his own version of the major leagues, and we are very likely to see more of this extremely talented actor — hopefully on Broadway or in TV or film.

Mr. Khan’s and Mr. Ellis’s previous collaboration “Fly,”  which was a hit on the Vineyard in 2010 before taking off to the famed Ford Theater in Washington, D.C., featured an ancillary character — a tap dancer — who helped interpret the action. Similarly, the accomplished jazz saxophonist Stan Strickland provides both music, some exposition, and atmosphere in the current Playhouse production. At one point, Mr. Strickland also does a brief turn as the legendary Charlie Parker on the verge of revolutionizing the jazz music world.

All in all, the show has mass appeal beyond baseball fans. And, it’s a telling story about the history of race relations in this country. In an interview after opening night, co-writer and director Mr. Khan noted that his research for the play led him to an interesting discovery.

“In the midwest, where segregation was very much a part of life, the result was a thriving black middle class,” he said, “I was shocked that there would be so many blacks who owned their own businesses and that that community actually survived.

“The idea was to tell the story of the Negro Leagues and the Major Leagues in baseball, but I also wanted to explore the climate of an America that was just on the eve of integration. That was originally my intent. We were so separate and yet in 1947 Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, and I guess the question at that time was what was going to happen now. It was kind of representative of all of America to take a snapshot of Kansas City in the middle of the country.”

“Satchel Paige” is cleverly staged, using projections, a musical narrator, and an interesting, minimal opening scene set to good advantage. The lighting and special effects are worthy of a metropolitan production and, as previously mentioned, the choreography, including dance and movement sequences by Marla Blakey, is exceptional.

Theater: “Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing,” Wednesdays-Saturdays through Sept. 6, 7:30 pm, Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, Vineyard Haven. $50; $40 seniors; $30 students. For more information and for tickets, call 508-687-2452 or visit mvplayhouse.org.