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Theatre Review: “Jackie and Me” at the Orlando REP

October 22, 2013

Combining entertainment with historical education and moral instruction is always a tricky proposition, and doubly so when we are speaking of theatre for young audiences. As the Orlando REP’s latest production proves, sometimes even the best artists can be led astray by the best of intentions.

Jackie and Me, scripted by Steven Dietz based on the children’s book by Dan Gutman, stars 20-year old Michael Thibodeau (convincingly playing a young teen) as a Little Leaguer who is suspended from playing after responding violently to an abusive competitor’s (a deliciously nasty Adam DelMedico) racist taunts. To research a school paper on black history, Thibodeau travels back in time to 1947, where he befriends Jackie Robinson (Clinton C.H. Harris, as noble and charismatic as Chadeick Boseman was in the recent biopic) and learns valuable life lessons about prejudice and anger management.

As with most of the REP’s mountings, this is a handsome, polished production, with an efficient Ebbets Field-inspired set by Alvin DeLeon, well-chosen light and sound effects by Brandon Gauthier, and direction by Gary Cadwallader that largely emphasizes pace and humor (but watch for squirming seats during several slow talky sections in act one). I have no complaints about the cast, from Stephen Pugh’s quietly compassionate Pee Wee Reese to Rod Cathey’s gravelly impersonation of Harrison Ford’s gravelly impersonation of Branch Rickey.

I can even forgive the logical potholes in the script, like Joey’s divorced parents (Kevin Kelly and Wendy Starkland) simply accepting that their son can literally time-travel by looking at old baseball cards (this story apparently the second installment in a series, but the backstory isn’t plausibly explained for newcomers); or the fact that several sections of dialogue eerily echo almost verbatim the screenplay for 42; or even the outrageous equivalency drawn between being a modern-day Polish suburbanite and life as an inner-city black child during the Jim Crow era.

But what I can’t abide is the well-meaning but ultimately destructive ethical attitude that undermines the entire production. From the start, Joey is castigated and punished for defending himself against ethnic insults, while Robinson’s supposed patience and self-restraint are held up as a model. Surely no one supports adolescents swinging baseball bats to solve playground disputes, but Joey’s options are presented as a Hobson’s choice between uncontrolled violence and meekly turning the other cheek. At no point do any of the adults observing the slurs Joey faces say or do anything to confront the tormenter; instead, they all tell Joey to just learn to ignore the epithets, rather than appropriately disciplining the instigator.

Ironically, the day after seeing the show — which promotes submissive non-confrontation in the face of discrimination — I received a replica of a 1958 letter sent from Jackie Robinson to President Eisenhower, stating in part:

“I was sitting in the audience at the Summit Meeing of Negro Leaders yesterday when you said we must have patience. On hearing you say this, I felt like standing up and saying, ‘Oh no! Not again.’…17 million Negroes cannot do as you suggest and wait for the hearts of men to change…I respectfully suggest that you unwittingly crush the spirit of freedom in Negroes by constantly urging forbearance and give hope to those…who would take from us even those freedoms we now enjoy.”

Jackie and Me’s simplistic “sticks and stones” sermonizing may serve the agenda of school district administrators who are more interested in avoiding lawsuits from abusers’ parents than providing justice for their vulnerable students. But the platitudes are dishonest to Jackie Robinson’s true legacy, and a deceptively destructive message to be broadcasting to children, especially in light of a local bullied middle-schooler’s recent suicide. I’d rather the REP teach kids to loudly, proudly stand up for themselves and others against any form of discrimination — and that just because an adult tells them to quietly accept abuse, doesn’t make it right.

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  • Tim O

    It’s important to point out that Steven Dietz wrote his play in 2010 well before the screenplay of “42” was accessable. Besides, the conversation between Rickey and Robinson is fairly well documented both in interview and in legend, so to suggest that any part of the play was cribbed from “42” is extremely unfair and just plain untruthful. So I would hope you will correct this misconception. Also, the lesson Joey learns is not to be meek, but to be civilized. Hitting another boy with a bat is unacceptable because it is violent; winning the ballgame by refusing to be victimized by a bully is smart and mentally healthy and extremely satisfying. Why Jackie Robinson agreed to hold his temper and not fight back for the designated number of years is depicted in the play (and in history) as a necessity, given the times (1947). And Jackie was a different man in 1958 than he was in 1947; the letter to Eisenhower reflectes an entire decade of struggles, some victories and many defeats…and new posibilities. I don’t think Mr. Robinson was regretful of his original agreement with Branch Rickey to hold his temper, but he knew Eisenhower was wrong and that it was time for further progress.

  • Seth Kubersky

    Thanks for your feedback Tim. I agree that “cribbed” was a poor word choice, I will correct that. I was just shocked at how verbatim some of the dialogue was in scenes that only the participants were present to witness…
    I appreciate your broader point, but I stand by my opinion of the simplistic parallel presented between Robinson’s circumstances (in 1947 or 58), and of the well-intentioned but ultimately unhealthy lesson being taught to Joey (and by association the impressionable students in attendance). In 2013 we don’t still tell kids being verbally abused to just play harder and “prove” the racists wrong…do we??? What if Joey just wasn’t good enough at baseball to steal home like Jackie; would that make it ok for the “responsible”adults present to continue permitting the use of ethnic slurs against him? In this day and age, why are educators reinforcing the idea that athletic prowess (or any kind of ability) is a prerequisite for human dignity?
    Obviously I’m being a bit hyperbolic, but the unintended consequences of this show’s sermonizing really rustled my jimmies…

  • Tim O

    Hi Seth, I do agree that to just “play harder” is not what we should teach kids suffering abuse. But somehow we need to teach kids to be smart about it, and not let abuse destroy them physically, emotionally, or in any other way. The lesson I see learned by the audience of this play is that one can outsmart a bully; if the situation happens to be baseball, steal
    home, win the game, teach the abuser that abuse doesn’t work as a psychological weapon.
    Joey’s violent response to the verbal baiting is out of hand, we have to go with that since he retaliates with a baseball bat. Even Jackie stops Joey
    and cautions him when Joey goes after Ant in the locker room…even reminding him of the promise made to Rickey. And at this point Joey remembers his promise to his Mom not to fight. So another lesson here: Keep your promises. And Rachel Robinson, at the drinking fountain, tells Joey, “You and me—we’ve got to be smart about the fights we pick. Stay brave—but be smart about it.” That’s the mantra of the play.
    Is the play simplistic about it? Sure, yes. But then, so is A CHRISTMAS CAROL if you think about it. And pretty much any other myth we recite to young people in order to teach basic lessons about living together in the world.
    In terms of abuse here’s what I see might be the biggest story problem for adults: Does Bobby Fuller (the bully pitcher) have tacit permission (by the
    sport and the league) to use whatever means he can to upset the batter to get the strike-out? Obviously, Joey’s coach doesn’t call a time-out, and Bobby isn’t penalized for his comments. This is really where an adult and/or the league would need to step in, but the world of the play says they don’t, so the world of the play is saying that in this instance it’s ok for the pitcher to taunt the batter to get the strike out; the batter needs to stay focused on the ball. Probably kids accept that as a given easier than adults can and kids don’t question that adults don’t (or can’t) always help. The dramatic tension is: will Joey be foolish enough to fall for the bait, and he does…the kids in the audience know Joey has failed, he let down his team, at the same time they want Bobby to get smashed for saying rotten things. The rest of the play is Joey (and the audience) discovering how one can fight the bully and stay in control at the same time.
    Yeah, I grant you that it’s simplistic, but I still believe the play tells a great lesson in self-control, keeping promises, and finding the civilized solution…all healthy things to know.
    And didn’t you think that the letter scene between Joey and Jackie was a terrific piece of theater for kids to see? Even in that scene Jackie says, “It’s not wrong to fight, Stosh. The question is how. How are we going to fight? With our fists–or with something more?” I assumed Jackie was suggesting that we should fight bigotry with our wits. Even kids without “athletic prowess” (who wouldn’t be playing high stakes Little League anyway…this just happens to be Joey’s passion) can gather the broader lesson and apply it to whatever bullying situation they might find themselves in.
    Seth, I’m so pleased you felt passionate about the play, as do I. Good and interesting stories provoke a passion to understand why people do what they do. I can’t resist saying that I wish Congress, as a group, would attend the theater. To have a discussion of “what it means to be a human being” should be at the center of every problem that needs their attention.

    PS: I just watched THE BUTLER. The Freedom Riders and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committe really caught my attention; using the law and non-violence to provoke change. And so dangerous for the Riders to not fight back; brave, like Jackie and Rachel. I can only imagine the courage it took…