Credit: Sean Williams

In Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting, Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey, well, calls a meeting. The invitees constitute what one character dubs a “Negro hall of fame” for the mid-20th-century United States: tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, boxer Joe Louis, and actor/singer/activist Paul Robeson. Rickey has summoned the men to a New York hotel room to solicit their endorsements for his decision to call Jackie Robinson up from the minors—a move that will make Robinson the first black player in Major League Baseball. Rickey wants the trio to join him at a press conference and send the message that the “whole black race” is on his side.

Playwright Ed Schmidt says he got the idea for his 1989 drama, now getting a crisp and exciting revival by Lookingglass Theatre Company, from Joe Louis’s unsubstantiated claim that this very assemblage of legends gathered in April 1947 to give Robinson the benefit of their experience. Whether or not the meeting actually took place doesn’t matter. Schmidt uses the possibility as a springboard for debating thorny and often overlooked issues Robinson’s breakthrough brings up.

Bojangles, Louis, and Robeson aren’t just famous African-Americans here. They represent three different approaches to black stardom in white America. For all his talent, Bojangles remains best known as a grinning stereotype, playing second fiddle to Shirley Temple. Louis helped pave the way for Robinson by becoming one of the first black athletes with universal appeal. But his handlers protected their investment by requiring the champ to abide by a set of “commandments” that would keep his public persona harmless, including an injunction against allowing himself to be photographed with a white woman.

By contrast, Schmidt presents Robeson as a man who refuses to compromise his dignity or let others run his life. He makes demands, speaks his mind, and doesn’t apologize, arguing against Rickey’s plan on the grounds that it’ll put all but the best Negro League players out of work—and, more importantly, that it doesn’t go far enough. Instead of an incremental, player-by-player approach, Robeson will accept nothing less than full, immediate, and unconditional integration.

As written, he’s insufferable. “Everybody respects Paul Robeson,” Schmidt has Jackie saying. “Only problem is, nobody likes him.” When he realizes that the rest of the room won’t go along with him, Robeson (James Vincent Meredith, in high dudgeon) viciously turns on Bojangles and Louis for what he sees as their Uncle Tomism, calling one an embarrassment and the other pathetic. He raises a number of good points, but he’s the worst sort of bully—the self-righteous kind, believing himself morally justified in tearing you a new one.

As you’ve probably figured out by now, this is one of those didactic plays where representatives of divergent viewpoints take turns delivering diatribes, and one of those contrived plays where a character keeps trying to leave the room but can’t seem to get out the door—even though, in this case, he’s the world’s heavyweight champ. Schmidt also inserts an ebullient, 17-year-old bellhop called Clancy who keeps barging in on the meeting. His too-perfect surname, Hope, more than hints at his heavy-handed function as an avatar for future generations.

But for all its flaws, the play displays an admirable willingness to grapple with questions that continue to vex us nearly 65 years after Robinson’s rookie season. As Randall Kennedy points out in his new book, The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency, Barack Obama had to toe a delicate line during the 2008 presidential campaign, signaling to black voters that he was proud of his heritage while striving to reassure whites that he “harbored no racial resentment, that he loved America.” And this in a campaign widely regarded as “post-racial” at the time.

Schmidt’s script is further enlivened by J. Nicole Brooks‘s invigorating, ideally cast staging. The roles may be talky, but it’s what’s implied—shadings, nuances—that makes them so gripping. In particular, Anthony Fleming III tempers Louis’s anger and volatility with a brooding, sullen energy, while Javon Johnson brings a boyish vulnerability to Jackie’s ambitious striving.

The most interesting character, though, is Rickey, because his motives for integrating the Dodgers are layered. On the one hand, he’s a businessman whose job is to win ball games, and he’d sign Eleanor Roosevelt if he thought it’d help. On the other, he realizes that letting black players into the majors is the right thing to do. Sporting moth-wing eyebrows and a dyspeptic expression, Larry Neumann Jr. plays Rickey with the air of a man rather astonished to find that the interests of his pocketbook and the dictates of his conscience happen to coincide for once.