Attending opening night of A.C.T.’s production of Toni Stone on March 11 was a singular experience. Following an announcement from Mayor London Breed limiting gatherings to under 1,000 people, the theater was far from capacity, and, like a half-empty sports arena, the atmosphere was subdued, though expectant.
Written by Lydia R. Diamond and directed by A.C.T.’s Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon, Toni Stone was meant to be a crowning jewel in a season themed the “rules of play.” But through no fault of its own, its opening night was overshadowed by an unfolding public health crisis—which eventually resulted in a shelter-in-place order with firm restrictions on public gatherings, including at theaters.
Under these unenviable circumstances, the show did go on. And the next morning, it closed.
Toni Stone is now being made available to watch online, filmed on stage at the Geary Theater, in a unique arrangement also undertaken by a handful of other theaters during the coronavirus shutdown. Tickets for the recorded performance are on a pay-what-you-will system. If you're stuck at home, I recommend giving it a shot.
That's because despite the external pressures on opening night, the cast and artistic team of Toni Stone knocked it out of the park. Chronicling the high point of the career of the first professional woman baseball player in the Negro Leagues, Toni Stone inhabits an episodic realm halfway between biopic and dramatic monologue, told through the perspective of its charismatic titular character, and supported by a strong team of eight additional players. Although a player for a short time with the San Francisco Sea Lions, Toni Stone is set during her later stint with the Indianapolis Clowns, the team with which she commanded the most attention.
Without preamble, Dawn Ursula as Toni Stone walks onstage to address the audience directly. Confident, solid, the embodiment of a consummate athlete, describing the weight of the ball as feeling like “what your hand, my hand, wanted all along.” As she describes herself and her preoccupation with the logistics of the game, her teammates enter the stage one by one, posing seriously with their bats. She introduces them with warm camaraderie—a litany of mostly forgotten, real-life players such as Spec (Daniel J. Bryant), King Tut (JaBen Early), and Elzie (Rodney Earl Jackson Jr.)—and the game begins in earnest.