In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American player in Major League Baseball history. But there were many others just as skilled and competitive, impatiently waiting their turns to step onto the larger stage. Satchel Paige, who had pitched formidably in the American Negro leagues for two decades, was foremost among those expecting his turn would come soon.
That’s the background for Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing, a play by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan now onstage at the Cincinnati Playhouse.
It’s not just Paige that yearns for change — other characters include ballplayers eager to move up and a young woman aspiring to a career as a club singer. To put their desires in sharp contrast, the playwrights have Paige’s team of barnstorming all-stars end up in the same Kansas City boarding house with a team of white players led by superstar pitcher Bob Feller. (Such exhibition tours with interracial play were commonplace in the 1930s and 1940s.) There’s a lot of joshing and jockeying for the upper hand — as athletes and, in the case of two young players, as suitors to the young singer.
Khan suggests the play is about larger social change: black businesses declining in a once prosperous neighborhood in Kansas City and elsewhere in America. The word “swing” in the show’s title overtly references Jazz and baseball, but it’s also a subtle nod to impending change.
Each character faces challenges. Paige (Robert Karma Robinson) is resentful of Robinson’s instant fame, feeling he’s been bypassed. Mrs. Hopkins (Vanessa A. Jones) sees her boardinghouse’s business slide downhill. Her daughter Moira (Tsilala Brock) is naïve about what the future might hold. There’s tension between her suitors, young black ballplayer Art Young (Peterson Townsend), who can’t wait to have his shot at the pros, and Franky Palmieri (Sam Wolf), who, the same age and white, is already under the watchful eye of Feller (Kohler McKenzie). Another veteran black player, Buck O’Neil (Michael Chenevert), is more realistic, pursuing the opportunity as a scout for MLB. Some will find happiness; others will have their hopes dashed.
Jazzman (Eric Person) plays moody sax to set scenes and punctuate the clashes between characters and circumstances, often underscored by rolling thunder and lightning. Paige’s story is the principal theme; the play loses some focus with so many threads of change. Nevertheless, with playwright Khan’s direction, the events are presented with energy and wit, offering an intriguing insight into a time of potent evolution toward today’s America.
• Interestingly, the Covedale Center’s current production also connects to 1947, the year Lerner and Loewe’s Brigadoon debuted on Broadway. It’s a postwar story of American buddies on a hunting trip in Scotland. They stumble on a strangely antique town and then discover its origins are two centuries in the past. Due to a “miracle,” it appears once each century then disappears. Despite an eager fiancée in New York and doubts about marriage, Tommy (Justin Glaser) meets Fiona (Sarah Viola) and falls head over heels in love with a sweet girl from the past. That’s complicated, since she can’t leave Brigadoon without dire consequences, and his sardonic friend Jeff (Charlie Harper) makes Tommy doubt the wisdom of staying.
Brigadoon was a popular show in 1947, but it feels old-fashioned in 2016. Glaser and Viola are powerful, trained singers, but the show’s score and their vibrato-filled voices turn Brigadoon more toward operetta than contemporary musical theater. Katelyn Reid as an overly amorous lass in pursuit of Harper’s Jeff provides spunky comic relief, and Kelcey Steele gives an ardent performance as bridegroom Charlie Dalrymple.
Fine singing, colorful costumes and a lot of Celtic-inspired dancing (co-choreographed by Kelcey and Christine Steele) in concert with Tim Perrino’s direction keep things moving, but this production of Brigadoon felt both stagey and stodgy by contemporary standards.
SATCHEL PAIGE AND THE KANSAS CITY SWING, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse, continues through May 21. BRIGADOON, presented by Cincinnati Landmark Productions at the Covedale Center, continues through May 22.