‘Toni Stone’ Holds Her Own As Pro Baseball’s First Female Player

CHICAGO – There’s much to say about Toni Stone, written by Lydia R. Diamond, currently showing at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, but like Toni’s on-stage storytelling, it would be hard to say it all in a straight line. That’s because this work shows a fascinating bit of American history but in double entendre. Toni Stone is the first woman to play professional baseball, it’s something she dreamed about since being a little girl. But getting there and staying there intersects with the realities of sexism and racism in 1950s America. The story captures the joy and significance of Toni’s influence on the game – and the business – while also serving up the African-American experience deepened by a spotlight on the mask that most black people wear in order to cope – and in Toni’s team’s case, to survive – in anti-black America.

But before we get into all that, as Toni might say, let’s go back to the beginning. Toni Stone is short, spunky and in love with baseball. She nimbly catches and throws a few balls on stage and explains how she became the first woman – of any race – to play in professional baseball. She played for the Indianapolis Clowns, in the Negro Leagues, a team that was home to the legendary Hank Aaron and also home to the kind of forced minstrelsy that could make you cry once you understood why you weren’t laughing.

In this Chicago rendition (directed by Ron OJ Parson), Tracy N. Bonner portrays Stone, a petite powerhouse “tomboy” who spouts players stats the way everyone else recites their ABCs. Those stats are her loveys, a way to center herself when the hardships of being a double minority at work present themselves. Bonner, as Toni, looked and moved like a ballplayer. She was also relatable as a woman in a male-dominated field. When she spoke? I believed her.

She narrated her own tale and the situation at times seemed nigh impossible. The black teams had to throw games to whites. That one time they decided to play for real and win? They had to run for the bus to avoid a lynching. There were no hotels for these super stars of baseball, and each member of the cast had their say about how they dealt with the oppressions of the world. They all turned to baseball and told themselves it was better than the alternative – even if some had to take instruction from Klan members and act like buffoons during the 6th inning to give the white patrons a “show.”

The whole play is remarkable but a few things stand out.

One, the realistic baseball diamond and bleachers set by Todd Rosenthal became a club, a bus, a bedroom and a dream. Two, these actors somehow intimated actual baseball games on stage. It was the sheer physicality of it all that struck me, with movement direction and choreography created by Cristin Carole, a former ballerina. It was kinetic. They hit balls, caught balls, slid into first base, hit home runs and ran home, caught grounders and swung those bats like they were going to send the ball out the back wall of the theatre. They also deftly moved beyond ball movements and into dance movements, showing choreographed routines that illustrated the minstrelsy yet also showed the taut and tense facial expressions that came with being forced to “clown” for your paycheck though playing ball was your passion.

Three, the interplay between professional and personal Toni was superb and Toni’s beau was icing on that complex cake.

John Hudson Odom soared as Madame Millie, a prostitute who befriended Toni when the team bedded down a brothel because black people weren’t allowed to use hotels. Millie too wore a mask, and her short yet intimate moments with Toni brought home the joys and sorrows of a woman’s work when her work is men.

Audience reaction is something I always take a look at when watching a play by and about black people but presented to mixed company. The initial minstrelsy was obvious to the black patrons but not so obvious to others. They laughed. At first. But when that minstrelsy became overcome by African beats and screams of terror, they knew. I had a difficult time watching the coonery because it triggers the pain, so I was glad to see the characters acknowledge this both verbally and physically. And then move on.

Good thing Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick was there, because I had questions. He’s seen the play in New York City, Atlanta and Chicago and offered more insight into the significance of the Clowns.

“The interpretation of the script, the way [each director] sees it is always different,” explained Kendrick. “I’ve enjoyed every performance to this point, so this was no different. As far as the cooning, that’s what the Clowns brought to the game. A lot of Negro Leagues players frowned on it. But this worked for the Clowns. It was controversial because the team was owned by a white man [who also] owned the Harlem Globe Trotters. [The Clowns] were very serious baseball players— Hank Aaron was a Clown— but they entertained as well. It’s been a little bit misconstrued throughout history but the Clowns are a significant part of black baseball history.”

There are so many layers to being a woman in a “man’s world” or in a “man’s industry.” There are so many layers to knowing you are smarter or better and having to dumb yourself down lest you offend your boss, or your coworkers or the client. Then there is the sheer joy of everything that comes with breaking the status quo, of loving yourself, your life and what you bring to the table. Toni Stone captured all that.

Toni Stone is at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

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