The timing's both perfect and sad.
On Monday, May 6, Vagabond Theatre Project will do a staged reading of Ed Schmidt's drama, Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting. The story, like a footnote to the movie 42, tells about an imaginary meeting between Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Jackie Robinson. Rickey wants him to "break the color barrier" and join the team, in effect becoming the first African-American ballplayer in the major leagues.
In the meeting, which never took place, Rickey must also convince the great black actor Paul Robeson, boxer Joe Louis, and entertainer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, each of whom has questions about such an historical - and life-threatening - decision.
Unlike the movie, which only suggests the possibility, the three men probe Rickey's motives: is he really in it for the bucks? (Harrison Ford's Rickey does say that having African-Americans buying tickets will open up a whole new market).
Also, a huge concern: what will happen to the Negro Leagues if all the best players leave for the majors? One consequence: the rest could lose their jobs.
To its credit, the movie opens up a neglected subject: many of baseball's greatest never performed on the biggest stage: Josh Gibson (who hit over 900 home runs without stepping into a pitch; he just rotated his hips, like the modern golf swing); James Thomas "Cool Papa" Bell (maybe the fastest of all time); Oscar Charleston (as immortal as that name!). 42 shows them playing in dimly lit ballparks and steered to segregated lodgings, drinking fountains, and rest rooms.
Also forgotten: Jackie Robinson was the first. He joined the National League Dodgers on April 15, 1947. But few ever mention Larry Doby, who joined the American League Cleveland Indians on July 5, 1947, and went through a similar hell. As did Hank Thompson with the St. Louis Browns that same year.
The cast for Vagabond's one-night only reading: Craig Noel Award-winner Mark Christopher Lawrence, as Joe Louis, Keith Jefferson, as "Bojangles" Robinson, Gerard Joseph as Jackie Robinson, John Rosen, as Branch Rickey, Vimel Sephus, as Clancy Hope, a bellhop who recalls the "meeting" years later, and Antonio TJ Johnson as Paul Robeson, who was most suspicious of Rickey's true intent.
The timing of the reading dovetails nicely with the movie, in that each fills in different parts of such an important story. The event will also mark TJ Johnson's final appearance on a local stage before moving to New York on June 5.
"That's blast off day," he says.
Tomorrow he'll tell us why.
Ocean Beach Playhouse, 4944 Newport Avenue, Ocean Beach, Monday, May 6 at 7:00 p.m.