by Raphael Badagliacca
Perfectly timed for black history month, “Josh: The Black Babe Ruth” runs through February 25th at the Theater for New City in downtown Manhattan. Michael A. Jones has written a stirring chronicle of the life of Josh Gibson, widely recognized as one of the greatest baseball players of all time, if not the greatest, whose talents were never displayed on the stage they deserved because of an accident of time — the color of his skin. For this reason, the drama has reverberations that go well beyond baseball, yet it remains a baseball story through and through, with draw and delight for fans of theater, fans of history and baseball fans more used to taking a seat in a stadium than a theater.
This play is a live multimedia event. The live part is the musical accompaniment of a guitar player (Percival James Prince) off to the side whose songs and poems give emotional context to the story, as black-and-white projected stills document relevant – sometimes searing – moments in 20th century history. For reasons that become obvious, the climactic expression is a musical treatment of Langston Hughes’ poem, “A Dream Deferred.”
After his parents move from Georgia to the Pittsburgh area, Josh Gibson becomes a legendary baseball home-run hitter for the Crawford Grays in the Negro Leagues. What drives him is the desire to make it to the major leagues at a time when blacks are barred from the game. His eventual numbers outstrip those of any major league player in history, with a batting average of .461 and 924 home-runs. At one point, he exclaims in extreme frustration: “They call me the black Babe Ruth. They should call him the white Josh Gibson.”
This story is expertly told by four actors who give us clearly drawn characters. Their performances can only be called excellent.
David Roberts plays Josh Gibson, pursued by his own ambition and demons. There are two major conflicts in this play: his doomed struggle to become a major leaguer and the tumultuous stand-off between his common law wife — guardian of his own aging mother and two children by his first wife who died in childbirth — and his mistress, herself married to a soldier fighting WW II. Through this tangle of relationships, Roberts as Gibson manages never to stray from his ambition, maintains a troubled sense of humor, and despite all convinces us of how much he loves playing the sport that has shut its door to him at the highest level.
Daniel Danielson is remarkable as Satchel Paige, the famed pitcher with a reputation for “showboatin’” as his close friend, Gibson, points out. Danielson captures so well the legendary confidence and sense of humor that we associate with Paige that going forward whenever I hear the name of Satchel Paige invoked, I will always think of Danielson’s performance. Among the many conflicts at the heart of this play, Michael A. Jones has given us the portrait of a genuine friendship between these two men. Danielson gets that across by his demeanor, his facial expressions, and his words. In a sense, Gibson is the straight man and Paige is the comic, except when events cause Paige to express concern for his friend. Danielson pulls all of this off.
We see Gibson’s mistress, Grace, before we do his common-law wife. This is because she has captured first place in his mind. Charletta Rozzell gives us a sexy, focused performance – her sexiness entirely focused on Josh Gibson. She is as determined to make him an official part of her life as he is determined to get into the major leagues. But he resists giving her that recognition just as the major leagues resists him, despite his talents. Her talents are also prodigious as expressed so well by the talent of this actress. Her performance reminds us that we are born with certain tools, there for us to apply in the service of our will, but nothing is guaranteed.
Daphne Danielle plays the part of Hattie Jones, Josh Gibson’s common law wife. The contrast between the two women’s roles on the stage illustrates for me how in life men’s actions assign roles to women. I was not surprised to learn after the play that Daphne Danielle was originally cast to play Grace. Throughout the play, she is looking for Josh Gibson in the flesh, but also searching for the lost time when his family was more the center of his life. One of my favorite moments truly showcased how accomplished an actress Daphne Danielle is. She addresses the audience asking us if we have seen Josh Gibson. She happened to ask me first. And I shook my head no, even though I had seen him moments before, as did each of the audience members as she walked among us, finishing with a young boy. We all lied for Josh. She brought it out of us in a spectacularly real way.
It is a compliment to Michael A. Jones’ writing and the performance as it plays that the characters all have a moment that turns. This is what life does to us. Josh Gibson is bed-ridden by his “headache.” Hattie Jones takes her place beside him, despite all that has transpired. A now modestly dressed Grace, sporting a black eye, is resigned. The supremely sunny Satchel Paige tells his friend everything will be alright, but the expression on his face tells us something else. In fact, the actors, because they are so good, show on their faces the reality of each moment before saying a word.
Josh Gibson deserved to play on a larger stage. So does this play by Michael A. Jones.
Josh: The Black Babe Ruth – Written by Michael A. Jones; directed by Bette Howard; set/graphic design, Marlon Campbell; lighting designer, Micheal Bell; sound designer, John Trace; audio operator Leila Wright; costume designer, Katherine Robinson; stage manager, Marsha Tracey.
With: Daphne Danielle, Daniel Danielson, Percival James Prince, David Roberts, and Charletta Rozzell.
At Theater for the New City (155 1st Avenue, New York, NY — (212) 254-1109) through July 30. Thursdays through Saturdays 7:30pm; Sunday at 3pm.