"Stealin’ Home” at the Castillo
Photo by Ron Glass
If you are a fan of the great Jackie Robinson who became the first African American to play in the major leagues, you may wish to catch “Stealin’ Home,” directed by Negro Ensemble artistic director, Charles Weldon. “Stealin’Home,’ is presently running until November 24th at the Castillo Theatre, located at 543 West 42nd Street in Manhattan.
This three character play written by playwright, Fred Newman, tells the story of Jackie Robinson’s early days in baseball and his relationship with fellow ballplayer and friend, Pee Wee Reese. Daniel Hickman plays Jackie, while Nick Webster portrays Pee Wee. Ava Jenkins plays the role of Sally Sojourner, a waitress and fan of Jackie’s. We find in the female character played by Jenkins, a quiet strength. In the beginning of the play its clear she knows Pee Wee loves to embellish, and while his somewhat over zealous assertions may not hold her attention, you see that the man himself does. It seems Sojourner is there to tell the truth and to let the men see she has their best interest at heart.
The story is seen through the eyes of shortstop Pee Wee Reese who narrates this rather hypothetical tale, giving his version of Robinson, whom he sees as a fine figure of a man, great ball player for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and an outstanding fielder. The audience can clearly see that there is some hero worshipping of Robinson going on, on the part of Reese. We do see that the playwright has taken some poetic license in his depiction of Robinson in “Stealin Home.” Some sports enthusiasts remember Robinson as a serious man, but painted by Newman’s brush, Robinson demonstrates a sense of humor, in fact is not above playing pranks. At one point Pee Wee talks about Shadow Ball. Shadow Ball was occasionally played with good humor by the Negro Leagues. It was a game designed to confound and distract the challenging team, by pretending to throw a real ball while actually not throwing any ball at all. Merely going through the motions as if an actual ball had been thrown. Whether Robinson felt confident enough to play Shadow Ball with his white teammates in real life remains to be seen, but at least in Newman’s version, Jackie did prank the major leaguers to the consternation of the opposing team and the delight of Pee Wee.
Being the first to bring about change, carries with it enormous pressure, especially when it comes to having to boldly step out into an arena as the one breaking the color barrier as Robinson did. Having to endure the hoots and hollers of fans who wanted to keep the game white, while Robinson is expected to keep his cool. Something that was not always so easy. We do however get the feeling that Pee Wee understood the racism Robinson endured and admired him for the strength it took to face bias and hatred day after day. In fact, Reese is known for a famous line wherein he stated, "You can hate a man for many reasons. Color is not one of them.” In 1948, Reese put his arm around Robinson in response to fans who shouted racial slurs at Robinson before a game in Cincinnati. And encouraged Jackie to keep his cool after manager Ben Chapman called Robinson a “nigger” from the dugout, yelling that Jackie should go back to the cotton fields. Somehow Jackie endured it all and as a result, he ended up changing the white washed game of baseball forever.
During his sojourn in baseball, Robinson played the sport for over 10 seasons which included six World Series and the 1955 World Championship. He won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1949, becoming the first African American to be so honored. Jackie Robinson was an all around sportsman. Before he wore number 42, he also played, basketball, football, and track. In fact, he won the 1940 NCAA Men’s Outdoor Track and Field Championship in the Long Jump.
While the play paced itself well, I found the acting of Hickman a little stiff. However, I shrugged that off as Opening Night jitters. On the other hand, Nick Webster seemed to be enjoying the heck out of himself as he fluidly delivered his lines and drew the audience into his fun loving character. Jenkins plays the somewhat bored recipient of Pee Wee’s narration and in some cases the social conscious of Robinson. We never meet Jackie’s family in Stealin Home but we do get the strong impression that Jackie loved his wife and was a strong family man.
Time passes throughout the play and the characters age. Jackie retires from baseball and becomes the vice president for personnel at Chock full o'Nuts; making him the first black person to serve as vice president of a major American corporation. As the play evolves, we come to see that Robinson is starting to get ill. He eventually starts losing his sight and ultimately succumbs to complications caused by heart disease and diabetes.
We leave the play convinced that the world is a whole lot better having had Jackie Robinson play ball. Don’t miss this play if your are a sports enthusiast who wants to get a view that depicts a different slant on the life of a man who was thrust into being a hero, when all along he simply just wanted to play ball.