Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey’s crucial, monumental decision to integrate Major League Baseball by signing Jackie Robinson is the fascinating catalyst of Ed Schmidt’s relevant and riveting 1989 drama Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting, impressively presented by the Dayton Theatre Guild.
Set in April 1947 at New York City’s Roosevelt Hotel (spaciously designed by Chris Harmon) six days before Robinson made his major league debut at age 28, this imaginary Meeting overseen by Rickey (Saul Caplan) with Robinson (Shaun Diggs) as sidekick involves key input from three influential African-American icons: Joe Louis, the world’s heavyweight champion (Robert-Wayne Waldron); popular vaudeville entertainer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (Franklin Johnson); and celebrated actor-activist Paul Robeson (Edward Hill). Rickey desperately seeks the trio’s support before announcing his decision, but intriguing questions and motives loom large, particularly regarding the future of the Negro National League. Sparks quickly fly and particularly compelling subtext arises when conversation shifts toward the African-American community’s reluctance to trust powerful white males to keep their promises. Rickey provides a unique opportunity to change the course of sports history for African-American athletes, but his chief desire for “slow, orderly, long-term progress” in which “long-term, lasting change happens one man at a time” sounds like defeatism to those in the room, particularly in the eyes of Robeson, a former Rutgers football player. Ultimately, a harsh reality isn’t lost on Jackie. “It ain’t up to us,” he reminds his fellow legends. “It never was. It never will be.”
Historical characters are the centerpiece, but director Rick Flynn effectively opted not to cast actors who are literal representations. Just as Chevy Chase hilariously embodied President Gerald Ford on Saturday Night Live, the essence of the characters takes precedence over exact physical likeness. Caplan, authoritatively intimidating, wonderfully captures the spirit of Rickey’s ambitious aims, including his genuine admiration for Jackie and a slew of strict rules as well as an unyielding determination to embrace baseball open-mindedly. Diggs, believably athletic, paints an excellently vivid portrait of a man refusing to limit his talents, his American Dream, in spite of an onslaught of racism. Hill, in a dynamic breakthrough performance, is a sophisticated voice of reason and ridicule, sometimes unnervingly in the same breath. Johnson, bubbly, agile and raspy, credibly evokes Robinson’s happy-go-lucky showmanship. Waldron, gruff and imposing, is enjoyably understated. Robert Culpepper, charmingly wide-eyed and crisply costumed in period by Carol Finley, completes the cast as excitable, starstruck bellhop Clancy Hope. Interestingly, based on the standout merits of Caplan and Hill, this Meeting would be just as gripping as an intimate two-hander. After all, Rickey and Robeson’s dueling perspectives from politics to power plays deserves expansion, particularly Robeson’s defiant view that Rickey waited 40 years too late to integrate. I suspect Schmidt was heavily inspired by August Wilson’s Fences when writing Robeson’s fiery arc, which includes many Troy Maxson-esque sermons fueled by issues of class, identity, race, and resentment.
African-American athletes have come a long way since Robinson paved the way, but that doesn’t mean the fight for social justice is over. It’s important for owners and players across all leagues to continue to make strides for the sake of future generations, especially minorities longing to join a coaching staff or become an executive. If not, inequality, in words famously sung by Robeson, just keeps rolling along.
Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting continues through Feb. 9 at Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Ave., Dayton. Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays; 5 p.m. Saturdays; and 3 p.m. Sundays. The production runs 90 minutes without intermission. Tickets are $13-$20. Patrons are advised the show contains strong language. For tickets or more information, call (937) 278-5993 or visit daytontheatreguild.org