KPBS AIRDATE: SEPTEMBER 28, 1994
Onstage this week, it’s a field day for America’s two favorite pastimes: baseball and melodrama.
If you didn’t know that ‘fan’ was short for ‘fanatic’ and you’re having withdrawal symptoms since the strike, you won’t want to miss “Diamonds,” a musical revue about bats, stats, bunts and the boys of summer, having its West coast premiere at San Diego State University.
As anyone who treasures the game will tell you, baseball is a metaphor for life, and this little show covers all the bases. With lesser-known contributions from some very well-known composers and lyricists — such as Kander and Ebb, Comden and Green, Menken and Zippel — we are taken from the backyard sandlot to a Kabuki “Casey at the Bat,” from the Black Sox to the brilliantly immortal Abbott and Costello routine, “Who’s On First.” Throughout the proceedings, a Ted Leitner impersonator recounts all of American history as a sports cast. From the Yanks against the Rebs on up to the Cold War Series, Yanks vs. the Reds.
Some of it is funny, some poignant, some sentimental, but it’s a great vehicle for student actors, and director Paula Kalustian scores a home-run with the Drama Department’s first production of the season. The audience sits in bleachers, the action takes place on an Astroturf playing field, and the chorus of vendors sells hotdogs and ginger-beer during the show. The talent lineup is competent, but there’s a noticeable absence of representatives of the Negro Leagues. Standout performances are delivered by Sean Bernardi and Michael Dalager. Kalustian has cut a number of segments from the original, but for a non-fan, it’s still a long run around the bases. For series-starved die-hards, though, this show is a winner.
Speaking of dying hard, consider the Old West, through dark glasses. Pearl Cleage’s “Flyin’ West” takes place in the all-black township of Nicodemus, Kansas, about the turn of the century. As in many contemporary African American plays, the women fare far better than the men. Here we meet three pretty powerful women who’ve made their way westward to freedom and land ownership. Sophie shares a homestead with her sister Fannie and Miss Leah, a wise old former slave. Then youngest sister Minnie appears with her uppity, self-loathing, mulatto husband, Frank.
Frank has evil designs on his wife’s share of the land; always trying to “pass,” he sides with the greedy white land speculators who threaten to destroy the black haven Sophie is working so hard to preserve. The plays’ problems come in the facile elimination of the villainous, wife-beating Frank. In true melodrama style, the audience complies with enthusiastic appreciation of his demise. Outside in the lobby, meanwhile, history seems very close to present-day reality, in the stark, disturbing photographs of Donna Ferrato, an exhibit called “Living With the Enemy” which shows that it isn’t quite so easy for abused wives to dispatch their husbands.
But back onstage, bathos aside, the play is potent and the six-person ensemble is equally strong. Director Floyd Gaffney provokes audience blood-lust in the second act, but he has otherwise mounted a moving and memorable production. Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson is a shotgun-wielding powerhouse as Sophie and Irma P. Hall, playing a crotchety old character that harks back to her wondrous performance in “Jar the Floor” at the Old Globe, is, once again, an irresistible, sinewy-but-soft, gospel-singing force.
Playwright Pearl Cleage reminds us that the winning of the West wasn’t all lily-white. This page of history, rarely read, deserves to be seen.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.