Chicago Theatre Company

Eugene Sawyer was there. Former Cubs outfielder Billy Williams was there. Vernon Jarrett, columnist for the Sun-Times, and the Reverend Henry Soles, senior chaplain for the Chicago Bulls, were there. Keryl McCord, the new director of the League of Chicago Theatres, and Mary E. Young, from the Department of Cultural Affairs, were there, the latter bearing a message from Mayor Daley. Hollywood entertainers Ted Lange and Kim Coles were there. And 89-year-old Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, one of the greatest stars of Negro League baseball, was there, the evening’s guest of honor. On the first day of black history month 1991, the VIPs were out in force for the midwest premiere by the Chicago Theatre Company of Ed Schmidt’s Mister Rickey Calls a Meeting.

I don’t think they were disappointed. Schmidt’s play–a hypothetical gathering of Paul Robeson, Joe Louis, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson with Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, in 1947 to decide the future of a young baseball player named Jackie Robinson–displays exhaustive research and an astonishing technical virtuosity for a playwright so young. (Schmidt is 28 years old–even the actors in the CTC production, who saw the playwright for the first time on opening night, seemed to expect a sexagenarian at the very least. At the reception after the play Schmidt answered more questions about his age, graciously at first but with growing signs of irritation, than about his training or literary methods.)

Schmidt succeeds in this difficult genre not only because he has so extensively researched his subject but because he recognizes the conventions of the historical novel–and, by extension, the historical play. The first is that the narrator be some humble citizen who just happens to witness firsthand the great events of history–someone who tells the story from a naive and unprejudiced point of view much like our own. In this role Schmidt gives us Clancy Hope. We first see him as an old man with an autograph book, but when he announces his intention of telling us how he came to acquire some of the names therein, the time shifts to 1947, when he was a young busboy in Manhattan’s Hotel Roosevelt waiting on the people assembled for Rickey’s momentous meeting.

Another convention is that, though historical personages may be bigger than life, they must remain human. This is a delicate balance to maintain: if the figures are too monumental, the play becomes little more than a series of oratorical civics-class tableaux vivants; too human, and the play ends up a Mel Brooks-style burlesque. By making his storyteller a youth stunned into wide-eyed awe by proximity to his heroes, Schmidt retains individual personalities while avoiding the details that might undercut their dignity. (Young playwrights seem more willing to grant heroes dignity nowadays, perhaps out of exasperation at the “instant history” so proudly created by their parents in the 60s and 70s.)

Finally, significant characters in historical novels must be aware of their significance and able to articulate and argue from that awareness. Here is Rickey’s argument for taking only one black player into the major leagues (though he had originally chosen three): “I’m the only manager who wants to integrate. . . . I can’t afford to make mistakes.” He pleads, “The only thing that’s fair in baseball is what happens between the foul lines–you know that!” Robeson, vehemently denying the charges of communism leveled at him by the McCarthy committee, points out that integration will mean the end of the black baseball leagues and the unemployment of thousands of people–“We must all answer to someone, and it will not be Branch Rickey. . . . We do not have to depend on their generosity.” Louis grumbles throughout that he has his own business to attend to, Bill Robinson repeatedly attempts to keep the peace, and Jackie Robinson–the man who will bear on his solitary shoulders the heroic martyrdom of being the first–faces his fate with determination and ironic humor. “You will have to be the most noticeable player on the field,” Rickey coaches him, and his protege snaps, “That shouldn’t be hard–unless they play in the dark!” He finally terminates the polemics with a flat “It’s not a perfect solution–it’s a step.” History, all four black men conclude, will move on, and their only decision is whether they will go along with it or not. But since Schmidt has kept his characters human, they manage to make one small, mischievous stand before surrendering to their destinies.

The Chicago Theatre Company’s production of Mister Rickey Calls a Meeting is nearly flawless, with superlative performances by Bob O’Donnell as the bantamweight Rickey and Paul Mabon (with a voice like muted thunder) as his chief antagonist, Robeson. They are ably supported by Cedric Young as the taciturn Louis, Ayri E. King III (better known to subway riders as “Mister Taps”) as the nimble-footed Bill Robinson, and Darryl “Rocky” Davis as an earnest but never cloying Jackie Robinson. Set and lighting designer Patrick O. Kerwin (with the assistance of lighting technician Devlin J. Brown), properties manager Carmella Snook, costume designer Glenn Billings, and sound designer Corbiere Boynes have re-created a 1940s hotel apartment so homey and functional it seems one could move in tomorrow. Indeed, when Radcliffe came up onstage during the curtain call, the veteran athlete promptly settled into the set’s easy chair.

But it’s the mercurial Clancy Hope–played by Clifton Williams with an engaging, energetic ingenuousness worthy of its prototype, Huckleberry Finn–who has the last word. Talking about Jackie Robinson’s funeral in 1972, Hope recalls that “[my wife], who never liked baseball, my uncle, who stayed a Yankees fan, my son, who was too young to remember having ever seen Jackie play, and my brother, who called Jackie an Uncle Tom–we were all there!” In that speech lie the dimensions of the Jackie Robinson story, which is much more than a simple baseball story–it’s a tale of courage and dignity and compromises made for the greater good. On opening night, we too were all there, brought together by Schmidt’s marvelous Meeting.