When Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, he not only changed the face of America’s pastime, he altered the course of an entire nation. Ed Schmidt’s 1989 drama uses Robinson’s ascension to the Major Leagues to dissect race relations in post–World War II America, depicting a fictionalized meeting among a trio of black America’s most influential men as they discuss the impact of Rickey’s decision.
Schmidt’s script can be long-winded and repetitive, but director J. Nicole Brooks maintains a brisk pace. The ensemble takes on its historical roles with confidence and with an organic rhythm that suggests long-standing relationships among the characters. Javon Johnson beautifully captures Robinson’s love for baseball, revealing a man who’ll stop at nothing to achieve his dreams. Kevin Douglas is delightful as Schmidt’s one whole-cloth creation, a starstruck teenage bellhop whose sense of wonder underlines the scope of the meeting.
As soft-spoken boxer Joe Louis, Anthony Fleming III’s rigid, dominating presence says more than words, while Ernest Perry Jr.’s charismatic Bill “Bojangles” Robinson is constantly performing, using spectacle to make his voice heard. James Vincent Meredith makes compelling arguments as Paul Robeson, the sole voice of dissent, but eventually Robeson’s objections feel like ways for the playwright to force tension onto the situation. Scenic designer Sibyl Wickersheimer’s diamond-shaped hotel room is a subtle reminder of the game at the heart of the drama, and Brian Sidney Bembridge’s lighting design uses stadium lights to striking effect during the powerful conclusion.
As an examination of racial oppression, Mr. Rickey needs a stronger central conflict; as a tribute to a baseball legend, Lookingglass’s production is a home run.