Despite Early Closing, 'Toni Stone' Hits a Home Run at A.C.T., Moves Online

The cast of 'Toni Stone' at A.C.T. (Kevin Berne)

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.

Dawn Ursula as Toni Stone at A.C.T. (Kevin Berne)

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.

Sponsored

As they “play,” the team’s exemplary choreography (Camille A. Brown with movement coach Danyon Davis) fills the stage with something akin to the energy of a live game while the character of Toni delves into the specifics of it. Balls are tossed, bats swung, bases rounded, banter flies. With all of the measurements of the game divisible by three, they reference the holy trinity, declaring the playing field a church. Like angels, the players glide across the floorboards, slightly above the gritty fray.

Dawn Ursula and JaBen Early on the off-season in 'Toni Stone' at A.C.T. (Kevin Berne)

In the idealized world of the theatrical, the raw sharp edges of life on the road are somewhat smoothed, addressing the many hardships faced by the team without forcing the actors to reenact each in too-excruciating detail. Forced to run from a crowd of racists during an exhibition game, the audience can feel reasonably certain that they’ll make it back to their van unscathed. Forced to ride through the night in search of a place to lay their heads, we know the bus will make it in one piece. Forced to sleep in a brothel in lieu of a hotel, Toni even makes a friend, the enigmatic Millie (Kenn E. Head), who offers some welcome comfort and sage advice.

But smoothed out certainly doesn’t mean edge-free, and the harsher realities of barnstorming in the League never stray far from the spotlight. A particularly agonizing sequence shows the players participating in the humiliating tradition of fifth-inning “clowning” during which their consummate athleticism becomes a framework for a minstrel-style show of synchronized soft-shoe and barely suppressed rage; pointedly implicating the watching audience. Toni must face and push back on the rampant sexism she encounters on and off the field, from threats of sexual violence to “helpful” suggestions that she wear a skirt as her uniform. Her teammates chafe and strain at their straightened circumstances, as over in New York, Jackie Robinson is breaking the color line in the majors, but not wide enough for them to join him.

Marquis D. Gibson and Dawn Ursula in 'Toni Stone' at A.C.T. (Kevin Berne)

Worldly yet guileless, self-sufficient but doggedly literal, Toni remains true to her own ambitions, no matter how many well-meaning voices try to talk her into desiring something else. A life of the creature comforts those voices promise is not the life she craves. It’s the dirt under her fingernails and the extra stretch in her arm as she reaches for an approaching ball, eager to feel the weight of it. Dawn Ursula deftly captures each shifting mood of her expressive character, while her talented teammates field the many bit roles: worried parents, overbearing bosses, bored bartenders, tender couples dancing in the dim half-light of memory. It feels a little strange that the play omits the overlap between Toni’s short tenure with the Indianapolis Clowns with those of their subsequent hires—Mamie “Peanut” Johnson and Connie Morgan—but as it already clocks in at close to two-and-a-half hours, it’s hard to say where they would fit in.

In what feels almost like an outrageously improbable doomsday scenario, both theater productions and major sporting events are effectively canceled for now, making the truncated run of this particular sports-themed show feel like a double whammy. But at least the show's online stream ensures that the many years of work that went into this one production won't be completely lost to posterity.

It took this many years for the Bay Area to give Toni Stone her due. And it’s good to see she’s not going down without a fight.

Sponsored

Toni Stone live performances have been canceled in San Francisco due to COVID-19 concerns. Find more details about watching the play online here.