The Hotel Roosevelt, April 9, 1947. Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, after years of dogged effort, is finally about to realize his longtime goal of opening up Major League Baseball to African-American players. To help win public support, he has invited heavyweight champ Joe Louis, tap-dance legend Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and actor/singer Paul Robeson to a sort-of PR strategy session in his hotel room.
Sounds like one of those fictional symposiums composed of luminaries from the past. But, it really happened. Ed Schmidt's play Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting, currently on the boards at the Anthony Bean Community Theater, is an imaginary account of what took place. The situation is fascinating. And director Anthony Bean and his cast deserve a tip of the chapeau for accomplishing the difficult task of making these larger-than-life figures believable and compelling.
Mr. Rickey (Charles Bosworth) is a pragmatist with a mission. As a young coach, he saw the pain caused by bigotry, when a black student athlete traveled with his team. Since then, he has had a score to settle with the world. He wants to make Robinson a Dodger. He wants a small, clean victory that will open the way for others. And so, he makes Robinson agree to three years of stoical public silence -- no matter what animosity he encounters, a truce during which the old status quo will fade away and the new status quo be established. Rickey is also a high-powered, peremptory, no-nonsense executive -- a shrewd and, at times, ruthless businessman.
The play, however, is not about Rickey's fight with the white establishment. It's about his head-on collision with Robeson (Anthony Bean). If Rickey is a flawed reformer, Robeson is a flawed revolutionary. His own struggles have left him bitter, and that bitterness alienates Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis and Bojangles. And yet, they cannot entirely evade the disturbing truths of his more radical perspective. The problem is that his greater truth will have no other effect than snuffing out the fragile candle Rickey is trying to light in the darkness.
Bosworth and Bean are well-matched opponents: the former, well intentioned, but overbearing; the latter, an exasperating mixture of insight and smugness. Artis Silvester as Jackie Robinson shows a man whose decency is the result of hard-won self-control, not lack of inner fire. Floyd Bean gives us a personable Bojangles, an aging star who employs a clownish charm to defuse conflicts. Councilman Oliver Thomas once again puts in an assured performance as Joe Louis -- "The Champ," a laconic, likable, somewhat intimidating presence.
Lyn Caliva designed (and Anthony Favre built) the detailed, attractive set.
Meanwhile, over in City Park, Dog & Pony Theatre recently held its annual outdoor Shakespeare production: A Midsummer Night's Dream. The show was, quite simply, breathtaking -- a dream of a dream.
This year, director John Grimsley abandoned the lagoon in front of NOMA -- with its vociferous kiddie train and inevitable police sirens -- and moved to the elegant, elegiac Popp memorial fountain (back behind I-610). I arrived on a moonlit night and walked along a path between flaming torches to the theater. A large crowd (many were families with kids) was gathered in front of a massive, moss hung oak. Here, Shakespeare's lyric comedy came alive, as though through enchantment, greatly abetted by the sprites of the forest -- an irresistible band of little children.
Cecile Casey Covert's exquisite costumes evoked the golden age of carnival, while a tasteful musical accompaniment was provided by two percussionists and an a cappella chorus of fairies (musical direction, Natascha Bolden; choreography, Jason Picus and Jesse Terrebone). Occasionally, the audience followed the action to other settings -- providing a welcome stretch in this intermission-less presentation. These perambulations ended at the stunning final tableau, consummated by a sudden, sparkling eruption of the fountain itself.
The cast was uniformly strong: clear, audible, poised and engaging. Some standouts were Michael Arata (Theseus), Andrea Frankle (Hippolyta), Jennifer Carriere (Hermia); Travis Resor (Demetrius), Philip Tracey (Lysander), Diana Shortes (Helena); Jerry Lee Leighton (Peter Quince), Scott Jefferson (Nick Bottom), Martin Covert (Francis Flute), Tony Molina (Oberon), Lara Grice (Titania), and Justin Scalise and Billy Slaughter as a pair of pucks.
I have enjoyed many outdoor Shakespeare productions in the past. But this A Midsummer Night's Dream was a quantum leap forward; one of those charmed stagings where everything comes together and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Shakespeare in the Park has come of age as one of the city's entertainment treasures.
- Joe Louis (City Councilman Oliver Thomas) gives Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson (Floyd Bean) the old what-for as Jackie Robinson (Artis Silvester) looks on in Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting.