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Jackie & Me – A Long Fly Ball Into the Gap

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I don’t recall experiencing live theater before my 13th birthday, though certainly I must have.

Whatever I saw as a youngster growing up in Minneapolis wasn’t performed on as grand a stage as what Charlotte-area youth find at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. Nor did it have the first-rate costuming, finely constructed sets, or top-talent acting — all of which I saw on stage Friday in the opening performance of “Jackie & Me,” Steven Dietz’s adaptation of Dan Gutman’s historical novel.

Observing the reactions of the fifth-grade classes that filled the theater, many of them likely attending their first play, I concluded that most would remember their initial experience much longer than I had mine.

“Jackie & Me,” performed here in one continuous act, is the story of Joey Stoshack, a 10-year-old white kid whose time-traveling superpower allows him to travel back to 1947 and meet his hero, Jackie Robinson, for a school report he’s assigned to write.

Robinson, of course, is forever lionized as the first African American to break Major League Baseball’s “color-line,” a superb athlete who took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers as the team’s starting first baseman.

One un-bargained-for transformation that occurs during Joey’s journey back in time (spoiler alert) is that he’s seen as black by Robinson’s cohorts and all the characters they meet. This “walk-a-mile-in-my-shoes” experience subjects Joey to the abusive, often violent and threatening behavior experienced by Robinson and untold other blacks in America.

Vehicle for discussion

Theater as a vehicle for opening doors to difficult discussions is nothing new. “The Diary of Anne Frank,” the powerful telling of a Jewish family hiding from the Nazis, was first performed in 1955 on Broadway and subsequently across America. Yet plays that lend themselves to challenging discussions about race are not often in the repertoire for children’s theaters.

Hat’s off to CTC for embracing Dietz’s script and staying true to the historically accurate portrayal of Robinson’s story, right down to the racial epithets hurled at him, including the “n-word.” The line comes during a particularly charged moment where Joey and Jackie are alone in Jackie’s apartment reading a hate letter threatening Jackie’s life.

“That word is somethin’ you better know – somethin’ you better keep out in the open,” Jackie tells Joey, “ ‘cause I’m afraid they’re gonna call you that word someday, and when they do you’re gonna have to stand up to it in your own way.”

Robinson’s way, as portrayed here, was to show enough courage to not fight back and turn the other cheek.

While the insults and challenges come hard and fast under Matthew Mazuroski’s direction, so do the lessons. None of which seemed lost on the children who attended Friday’s performance, nor on the adults who accompanied them.

Ninety minutes straight is a long time for children to sit still, yet I saw not even a wiggle during the show. The storyline is engaging and peppered with enough relevant issues – school, parental stress, fitting in, and passion for sports – that the dialog alone can hold a child’s attention.

When combined with an innovative use of vintage video footing and staging depicting the Bronx, Ebbets Field and 1940s New York, and some well-choreographed physical action, the production positively sings.

Seamless scene shifts take the audience to the ball field, locker room, Robinson’s apartment and Joey’s living room. Some high-tech time travel effects provide just enough whiz-bangery for the videogame set to stay in the present and watch what comes next.

Stout cast

Casting for this production is stout and littered with veterans of Charlotte’s theatrical scene.

Charles LaBorde, equally accomplished from a director’s chair as he is on stage, puts in a solid Branch Rickey (and several other characters, including an aging Babe Ruth), the Hall of Fame front office exec of the Dodgers who signed Robinson.

Rickey was Robinson’s wingman of sorts, running interference with the press, the public, other team executives and a host of very real bogeymen determined to keep baseball segregated.

LaBorde’s portrayal reveals Rickey’s gruff exterior and heady psyche. Rickey knew that by testing Robinson behind closed doors he’d give the young player a chance to think through how he’d respond to public challenges.

LaBorde demonstrates this technique brilliantly, flipping the “mean” switch while Joey watches. Both Robinson and Joey soon realize it is a test – and see the value of this trial.

Chester Shepherd has perhaps the most challenging role as Joey. Striking the right chord as 10-year-old time traveler can be fraught with credibility concerns, even when your audience is predominately youngsters. Shepherd avoids those traps.

Onstage for virtually the entire performance, Shepherd finds the right balance of child-like awe and amazement in the presence of his hero and enough naiveté regarding the ugliness of raw racism.

Jackie Robinson is shown a deft touch with Bobby Tyson, a familiar face in Charlotte theater, seen annually in the folly that is “Charlotte Squawks,” among others. His Robinson is genuine and not preachy, with Tyson preferring to show rather than tell why Robinson gained so much admiration and respect from his peers and the entire nation.

Other standout performers are Ericka Ross as Rachel Robinson (also Joey’s school teacher) and Danielle Rhea as Joey’s mom. Each hits just the right notes with her portrayals and plays well off the ensemble cast.

“Jackie & Me” is as entertaining as it is educational. There is plenty of comic relief in this up-tempo production.

Above all, theatergoers leave uplifted. The play is a celebration of a brief life (Robinson died at 53) that had great impact.

It was Robinson after all who said, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

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