Put Paul Robeson, Joe Louis and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in a room with Jackie Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, in 1947, and what have you got?
In "Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting," at the Pasadena Playhouse, you have a spirited discussion of racial issues. You don't have real history--this meeting is "almost certainly fictitious," wrote playwright Ed Schmidt in his program notes.
In his notes for the program of the 1992 production at the Old Globe in San Diego, Schmidt was more adamant. "This meeting never took place," he wrote. He also outlined a few other areas where he had departed from the facts, only to add that the play was about more than accuracy.
So call it historical fiction. The occasion of Jackie Robinson's promotion to the major leagues in 1947 is the pretext more than the subject, which is a broader examination of black and white issues.
This seemed especially pertinent five years ago at the Old Globe, for it opened just a few days after that year's L.A. riots.
Yet it's also appropriate for Pasadena's leading theater company to produce this play--its L.A. County stage premiere--this year. Robinson was raised in Pasadena, and this year marks the 50th anniversary of his most famous achievement.
The conversation is absorbing, thanks to the presence of Robeson (the eloquent Willie C. Carpenter). Rickey has asked the men to his hotel room to enlist their active support for his decision to promote Robinson. Although we know that he already made the decision (which deflates some of the suspense early on), he tells his guests he can't go forward without their assistance.
Louis and Bill Robinson are ready to sign on immediately. If Robeson had agreed, the play would have been much shorter. But Robeson persists in investigating the effect of Jackie Robinson's triumph on the players and owners in the segregated Negro Leagues, predicting (correctly) that they are doomed if the black fans focus on Robinson and the majors. Robeson proposes that an entire team of Negro League all-stars be added to the majors.
Robeson also learns that Robinson has promised to stay mum in the face of racial insults for at least three years, as part of his deal with Rickey. To get the young ballplayer to ponder the implications, Robeson casts a few insults around the room himself. Tempers flare.
Sterling Macer Jr.'s Jackie Robinson displays his private irritation as well as the public poise that will serve him during the next three years. Through much of the play, he's reacting to Robeson, but he finally gets to speak his piece.
Shashawnee Hall's Joe Louis is a big, impatient man, apparently still in his prime, for he doesn't look as tormented as Ron Canada did in this role in San Diego. Likewise, Harrison Page's Bojangles looks younger than Nick LaTour did in San Diego and not as beleaguered as the script suggests. The script assigns Page's character an ownership interest in the Negro Leagues, but--for the record--Schmidt's San Diego program notes acknowledged that this wasn't true in 1947.
Robert Walden plays Rickey with ample body padding, a cigar, an amusing gift for self-dramatization and canny eyes. If Rickey is so shrewd, though, why would he have invited Robeson? In the San Diego program, Schmidt acknowledged that this wouldn't have happened but maintained that he had invented a motive to make it likelier. Still, it's not completely convincing.
Another character, hotel bellboy Clancy Hope (Rugg Williams), provides momentary laughs as a young kid who dares to talk back to a few of his idols. The play is framed as a reminiscence by the older Clancy (David Downing), whose insistence that "this story's true" seems slightly perverse in view of the liberties Schmidt took with the facts.
Sheldon Epps repeated his San Diego directorial duties, again maintaining a keen sense of focus. Gary Wissmann's set, with a picture window looking out on the Manhattan skyline, makes New York look as glamorous as the celebrities who have assembled in the room.
* "Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m., Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Feb. 23. $13.50-$42.50. (800) 233-3123. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
Sterling R. Macer Jr.: Jackie Robinson
Robert Walden: Branch Rickey
Willie C. Carpenter: Paul Robeson
Shashawnee Hall: Joe Louis
Harrison Page: Bill "Bojangles" Robinson
David Downing: Elder Clancy Hope
Rugg Williams: Clancy Hope
By Ed Schmidt. Directed by Sheldon Epps. Set by Gary Wissmann. Lights by Kevin Mahan. Costumes by Christina Haatainen. Sound by Jeff Willens. Production stage manager Elizabeth Stephens.