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Q CITY METRO – Jackie & Me – Courage, Strength & Perseverance

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Children’s Theatre of Charlotte this month will present a dramatic play exploring powerful lessons learned by a 10-year-old baseball enthusiast who travels back in time to interview the legendary American icon Jackie Robinson.

Robinson broke the “color-barrier” in baseball’s modern era as the first African American to play for a Major-League team. In 1947, at age 28, Robinson was thrust into the national spotlight as the starting first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers. His presence in the major’s began the endgame for 60 years of racial segregation that isolated black players to the so-named “Negro leagues” of the day.

“Jackie & Me,” written by award-winning contemporary playwright Steven Dietz, is based on Dan Gutman’s novel of the same name.

The tale follows young Joey Stoshack, a kid of Polish descent, who receives more than a few barbs and ribbing from his schoolmates regarding his heritage. Joey’s response to a school assignment to write about a role model finds him using his special time traveling prowess to meet Robinson. Along the way he experiences firsthand the harsh, often violent and threatening treatment displayed toward blacks in that era. The lessons become particularly poignant as Joey undergoes a transformation and personally lives the very same bullying and discrimination endured by his hero.

Historically accurate portrayal

The presentation is historically accurate in its portrayal of Robinson’s travails. So much so, that Children’s Theatre felt it necessary to share a caution with potential audiences regarding language used in the production.

Below is an excerpt from a CTC communication distributed to area schools:

“Jackie and Me” explores a time in our nation’s history when minorities, particularly African-Americans, were not treated fairly by many individuals and institutions. The script uses the “n-word” in one instance: it is included in an anonymous threatening letter that Jackie Robinson receives, which is read aloud by 10-year-old Joey. This is a powerful moment in the play, with Robinson telling Joey “That word is somethin’ you better know – somethin’ you better keep out in the open – 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.” In the context of this play – and the time and place it portrays – we believe the use of the “n-word” is important for the story. We also respect the author’s original book, and the playwright’s adaptation, in our presentation of this piece. You may feel it is appropriate to share with your students that they will hear this word before they see the show, and/or discuss it in context following the performance.

Charlotte actor Bobby Tyson, 46, portrays Jackie Robinson.

“The play addresses deep and significant moments through powerful scenes,” said Tyson, who many in Charlotte will recognize from his multiple “Charlotte Squawks” performances and appearances on virtually every theatrical stage in town. “Difficult scenes come very fast and hard yet are immediately followed by a strong message and lesson. It is a beautifully and thoughtfully done work.”

Difficult conversations

CTC notes that the play is suitable for children ages 7 and up, and while the theater company has not seen a significant drop in advance sales, a few elementary schools have chosen to pass on this production.

“Part of our mission at CTC is to provide an opportunity for the community to participate in open discussions about important issues,” said Adam Burke, 41, artistic director.

Burke noted that the company has a history of thoughtful treatment in addressing challenging subject matter, including a recent play that dealt with the death of a parent.

“Discussions surrounding race are admittedly difficult; we can be a place where these conversations can take place,” he said. “We want to provide these opportunities.”

CTC has developed a teacher resource guide for “Jackie & Me” providing historical background and context as well as a series of thoughtful discussion questions for use in the classroom.

“There’s nothing new here as far as the actual history,” said Tyson. “What makes it different and exciting and so accessible for an audience is a director who is passionate, a great cast, and a script that is incredibly well done. This play will make for spectacular conversation.”

Youngstown State University (Ohio) theater professor Matthew Mazuroski, 51, directs the production.

“These stories simply have to be told,” he said. “This is not just black history; this is American history. We are at risk of losing these moments to a line in a history book by not sharing them where people can see and experience what actually happened.”

In a country where being first is routinely and immediately celebrated, the heft and importance of Jackie Robinson’s firsts, and his entire lifetime of accomplishments, are still becoming evident, 68 years later.

Robinson’s former teammate, pitcher Carl Erskine, perhaps said it best when he famously wrote: “You say Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball. I say he didn’t break anything. Jackie Robinson was a healer.”

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