Legend has it that, in 1947, Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey gathered together the most influential black men in America in one cramped hotel room. The story goes that these men--Joe Louis, Paul Robeson and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson--met to discuss Rickey's pending announcement that Jackie Robinson would be joining the Dodgers. Rickey felt that Robinson, who was about to become the first black athlete signed to a professional baseball team, needed the moral support and guidance of other eminent African Americans.
The closest thing to proof of this legendary confab is a vague passage in Joe Louis' autobiography, in which Louis' ghostwriter dances around the reasons for the meeting and its outcome. No matter. Playwright Ed Schmidt has, with Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting, conjured up a credible and engaging version of what might have transpired in that hotel room more than 50 years ago. The play's current Black Theatre Troupe production is an accomplished reading of Schmidt's play, from its skillful staging to its expert portraiture of these several celebrated men.
There may be more to the story than history--and Louis--would have it. The meeting, Schmidt suggests, was little more than a duplicitous and well-timed publicity stunt engineered by Rickey without the knowledge of his famous pals. If Rickey was in fact looking to discuss the strategy of his baseball bombshell with other "colored men," why did he call the meeting after Robinson's promotion? And why is there a group of sportswriters waiting in the lobby of the hotel?
Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting
Whatever the reason--or whether the infamous encounter even took place--Schmidt has created a complex, engaging study of social and historical mores. Rickey's motivation in calling his meeting is unimportant; Schmidt uses this quorum to illuminate the behavior of every black man in the play, as well as the white society they inhabit.
The real story is what happened in postwar America when blacks began moving to the front of the bus. The question isn't whether Branch Rickey was a shyster who tricked his friends into a fabulous photo op, but how far white America has evolved regarding race relations.
Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting is an amazing little play, full of imaginative twists and neat little sermons about intolerance, in which Schmidt uses the sacred fields of American baseball as a backdrop for his moral positions. He has compassion for blacks (Schmidt is white), but doesn't let anyone off the hook: We discover that Bill Robinson is culpable in the injustices of professional black baseball, and we watch while Jackie Robinson confesses to selling his soul to Rickey for a place in the major leagues. Mr. Rickey speaks to both blacks and whites, implicating both in various forms of racism without ever condemning or patronizing either group.
There's no lost momentum here, because Schmidt has wisely confined his action, such as it is, to a single act. We benefit from the real-time impact of a discourse that builds with no break for cookies, one that's spoken by a group of stunningly articulate about-to-be-has-beens. Bill Robinson, already a legend at the time of this story, was broke and addicted to gambling, a habit that kept him hoofing well into his dotage. World heavyweight champ Louis, deeply in debt, was at the end of a boxing career that would leave him destitute. And the singing career of Robeson, who'd just testified before the Tenney Committee on Un-American Activities, was on the skids after the media labeled him a Communist. Schmidt places these giants at one end of the stage, with Jackie Robinson--who for many would represent the age of integration--at the other. We're left to decide whether the discussion they're engaged in has shifted much in the past half-century.
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Director Douglas Alan-Mann treats Schmidt's story with the reverence it deserves, but places its icons at eye level, drawing from his cast several casual, well-shaded performances. These aren't strutting legends, Alan-Mann knows; they're a roomful of loud-mouthed personalities trying to be heard. Ironically, Kwane Vedrene, as Jackie Robinson, has the least to say: Robinson is little more than the pivot in this story, and he spends a good deal of his time listening to his betters bemoan the past and wail more meaningful concerns. The strongest material is handed to Robeson, whose articulate speeches--read beautifully by Mel Morris in a lusty baritone--provide the play's finest moments.
Ben Tyler is perfect in the title role. Equal parts bullshit and benevolence, his Mr. Rickey is a blustery renegade, full of contradictions that always leave the audience on edge. Only Cordell Conway, as Bojangles, strikes out. His opening-night performance was unpolished and at times incoherent, though his mumbling and stuttering occasionally served him well: His line readings were often so feeble that it wasn't apparent when he lost his place in the script.
Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting does more than recount an astonishing (and little known) moment in American history. It conjures up heroic ghosts from our past, who bring with them unsettling questions about ambition, fame and the state of racism in America today. As the answers come, Schmidt, as if wielding a bat, lands each of them where it hurts most.
Black Theatre Troupe's Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting continues through Sunday, April 18, at the Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts, 333 East Portland.