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A new play puts the first woman to play big-league professional baseball alongside men center stage
If you've never heard of Toni Stone, don't worry -- you're in good company. Playwright Lydia R. Diamond didn't know her name either until she was asked to pen a show about the African-American athlete, the first woman to play big-league professional baseball alongside men when she joined the Negro American League's Indianapolis Clowns in 1953 as a second baseman. A vibrant play as well as a potent examination of racism and misogyny in America, Toni Stone is having its world premiere at Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre.
It took a team of women artists at the top of their game to bring the late Stone's life story out of obscurity and into the spotlight. About four years ago, Tony-winning director Pam MacKinnon (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Clybourne Park) and producer Samantha Barrie started searching for the right dramatist to adapt Martha Ackman's biography Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone for the stage. They had both seen and admired Diamond's Stick Fly on Broadway, a complicated contemporary drama that explored nuances of race and class, and they asked if she would be open to a commission. Initially, she turned them down. "I said, 'I can't -- too many producers are angry with me,'" Diamond recalls. "'I'm a slow writer.' They said, 'Just read the book.'"
Once she did, Diamond knew she couldn't pass up the opportunity. "This is a story that's got to be told," she says. "How could I let anyone else tell it?"
Diamond isn't the only one who became a Stone fan during the play's developmental journey. According to the playwright, "There are so many actors who worked with us over the years and fell in love with the story," including April Matthis, who plays Stone. Originally Uzo Aduba from Orange Is the New Black was cast in the role, but she had to bow out due to a scheduling conflict. Matthis had hit the ball out of the park pinch-hitting for Aduba during a week-long workshop. So when the part became available, Matthis was invited to join the roster. "When the words started coming out of her mouth, it was music," says Diamond. "It was the voice that had been in my head and my heart."
Just like Stone was the only woman on the field, Matthis is the only woman on stage as the rest of the all-male cast tackles characters across race and gender in this kinetic production, which is choreographed by Tony nominee Camille A. Brown. "I'm an actor, I do plays -- I don't play baseball," Matthis says with a laugh, noting that Brown's movements help her tap into the the grace and the grind of the sport. "This show is really physical, and she is brilliant," says Matthis. "It's been great to serve this character and help tell this story about this amazing athlete that we need to know more about."
While Toni Stone certainly contains many grim and heartrending scenes, it's also full of exuberance and humor. Often the disparate moods blend into one another, and Diamond thinks that's as it should be. "We're supposed to laugh, and we're supposed to sit in discomfort, as Toni Stone had to do," she says. Matthis, an Off-Off Broadway veteran with an Obie Award for Sustained Excellence of Performance, agrees. "Coming from downtown, dealing with work that makes that makes people uncomfortable, I'm ready for all of it," she says. "And it's cool to be uptown doing it."
Diamond's only regret about Toni Stone is that she couldn't fit all the drama of her life in a two-hour show. One of the stories she had to leave out was Stone's face-off against one of the greatest pitchers of all time in any league. "Toni Stone hit a curveball off of Satchel Paige, which was nearly impossible," says Diamond. "He would say, 'How do you want it?' and serve it up and still they would strike out." But Stone refused to play along, saying "Throw me whatever you wanna throw me" and then came his curveball. "When one of those comes at you, you want to move away from it, but the only way to hit a curveball is to lean in," notes Diamond. Decades before that became a mantra for ambitious women, Stone leaned in and made sports history. Diamond, Matthis and the rest of the team hope Toni Stone will have audiences leaning forward in their seats.
Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.
Top image: April Matthis in Toni Stone. Photo by Joan Marcus.