KPBS AIRDATE: May 20, 1992
What’ve you got when you have Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Paul Robeson together in one room for a big-time meeting? A bunch of really heavy-hitters. Oh, and don’t forget the guy who made it all happen — Branch Rickey, the crusty Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager.
Actually, it probably didn’t happen at all, but Ed Schmidt, a 29 year-old white playwright from Brooklyn , thinks it could have, and that’s the premise of “Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting.” If it did occur, the date would have been April 9, 1947 . Mr. Rickey — nobody called him Branch — is about to move Jackie Robinson up to the Dodgers, to become the first Negro player in the Major leagues. He assembles the important black players, those with the highest profile in the U.S. at the time, to give their wholehearted, public support to the promotion, to show that there is solidarity in the black community, and a willingness to wait for slow, long-term change, not to push for a racial revolution. He’s also — unbeknownst to the group — got the whole press corps standing by, to capture the event.
To Rickey, it seemed like an easy enough task — advancement for one African-American is an advancement for all. But it doesn’t turn out to be that simple. There are still serious concerns about Rickey as a white man, a power-wielder, a manipulator.
He struck a bargain with Jackie Robinson. Paul Robeson wants to know what it is and why. He wants to protect the Negro Leagues, so thousands of black men won’t be out of a job to grant big-time employment to a few. Onstage, Room 902 in New York ‘s Hotel Roosevelt fairly vibrates with the heat and the rhythm of the conversation. And it resonates with the words and events of the past weeks in Los Angeles .
Robeson, the actor/singer/activist, is the social conscience of the group. He actually forces Mr. Rickey to leave the room, so he and his ‘brothers’ can talk. At one point, he makes a speech frighteningly like those we’ve heard in recent weeks. In a booming, basso voice, he says “We have such strength and power. That’s why they terrorize us and hurt us and kill us. Because they know that we are strong… I enjoy the struggle. It hurts. But it’s honest. I’ll fight for it, I’ll die for it, I’ll kill for it.”
Although there are hold-your-breath, high-intensity moments, there are also lots of laughs in “Mr. Rickey.” And there’s a tremendous amount of talent on the stage. This is a true ensemble production, forcefully directed by Sheldon Epps. Every actor portrays a three-dimensional character, not a mere caricature. Most engaging is Jeremiah Wayne Birkett as the fictitious Clancy Hope, the guy who ties the piece together as a memory play. Most intense and tightly strung is Ron Canada’s powerful Joe Louis. But everybody is wonderful, and they are backed by a believable set and snazzy costumes, realistic sound and subtle lighting.
The messages aren’t subtle, and they’re incredibly timely. The taut, one-act play isn’t just about America ‘s favorite pastime. It’s about enduring issues of justice, empowerment and racial inequality. For a new piece by a young guy, it’s definitely major league.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.