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'Jackie and Me' playwright talks about using baseball to talk about culture

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 16, 2013 - Spring training is weeks away but one ex-Cardinal is already getting some play in St. Louis.

During his one year with the Cards in 1963, Negro Leaguer George “Daddy Long Legs” Altman hit nine home runs. This weekend, he returns to the home of the Cardinals to talk with audiences of Metro Theater Company’s “Jackie and Me” at the Edison Theatre, along with Negro League legend Jim Proctor and League historian Gary Crawford.

“Jackie and Me” is the story of white, 12-year-old Joey Stoshack, who time-travels back to 1947, using a baseball card as a passport. He discovers he’s now black and witnesses Jackie Robinson’s signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the office of baseball executive Branch Rickey.

As the nation’s first black Major League Baseball player, Robinson is well-known for paving the way for players like Altman and Proctor. Less recognized is the abundance of cruel prejudice Robinson quietly endured as he blazed the trail.

Black like him

Playwright Steven Dietz, of the University of Texas in Austin, adapted the Dan Gutman young-adult novel of the same name to the stage.

"'Jackie and Me,'" Dietz says, "is part of a series, and I had already turned another book, 'Honus and Me' into a play. Dan saw that play and afterward, he was kind enough to say, 'I hope you’ll adapt one of the other books.'"

“Jackie and Me” was particularly appealing to Dietz because Jackie Robinson had long been a hero, not only to him, but to his kids, who were 5 and 6 at the time.

One of the challenges he faced in adapting the book to a play involved Joey's transition from white to black.

"[We make] no change whatsoever in the actor. Instead, we have him see what it’s like to be teated as a black boy in 1947. He goes to a whites-only drinking fountain and he sees the way people look at him and shun him," Dietz says.

The book, he notes, relies purely on description, but the reactive racial switch in the play added what he calls a "powerful element."

"As this young boy looks in the mirror and sees that he’s different, he’s able to say to the audience, 'I always thought that if I were a different color, I would feel different -- but I still feel just like me.'"

As Joey experiences discrimination first-hand, he also sees the blatant racism in how other ballplayers treat Robinson, including name-calling, shunning and ignoring.

"This is all historically accurate, the things that Jackie Robinson endured, like being shouted at from the stands," Dietz says. "And there’s a scene where Joey sees hundreds of letters that Robinson received, threatening to kill him, threatening to kill his wife, his child."

The actor who plays Joey is a young man, not a child. While Dietz says that some productions have used a child in this role, it's a demanding performance that was written to be played by professional actors. In the Metro Theater production, "the actor is a youthful young man but he doesn't act like a little kid; he just tries to capture that spirit of youth," he says.

"Jackie and Me" is not the story of a prejudiced boy who learns a lesson. But it does make Joey -- and the audience -- aware that "racism isn’t something you solve, it’s something you fight and you try to be aware of."

"It does what school does best and theater does best: it brings the past and even the recent past to life. Hopefully, it will prompt discussions in schools, among students and in families," Dietz says.

The story uses baseball to talk about about societal issues. But fans will also get their fill.

"There’s a lot of baseball in this play, a lot of humor in this play, and a lot of the joy of the game," Dietz says. "In some ways, that’s the delivery system for how we talk about culture, status, class, race and other things that I believe belong in the theater."

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