(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal)
In an era where black Americans find themselves fighting for their lives against entrenched racist systems, it becomes increasingly important to spend Black History Month learning the stories and struggles of African Americas across the history of the nation.
With Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing, Austin Playhouse does just this, presenting a play with powerful performances that explore an important moment in the history of Major League Baseball’s integration of black players.
Satchel Paige, written by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan, tells the story of African American pitcher Satchel Paige’s decision to leave the Negro leagues for the Cleveland Indians, along the way creating a view of the kinds of pressures faced by baseball stars in the Negro Leagues in the wake of Jackie Robinson breaking the Major League color barrier.
Although Ellis and Khan’s script is a bit unfocused and disjointed, Austin Playhouse’s production allows for some talented actors to hit one out of the park.
Marc Pouhé, as Paige, is the strong, sturdy center of the play, and his ability to believably turn on a dime from delight to rage and back again provides the show with an emotional momentum that isn’t always present in the script.
His right-hand man, Buck O’Neil (the first black scout and coach in the MLB), is played with a quiet strength, dignity, and hilarity by Robert King Jr., and the strongest moments in the play come from the interaction between these two
Patrick Gathron, as youthful Negro League player – and MLB hopeful – Art Young provides a dash of innocence to contrast with the two older men. The baseball players are rounded out by Stephen Mercantel as Franky Palmieri, a stereotypical Brooklyn-Italian who has trouble differentiating racism from personal animosity and desire, and Jason Newman as real-world barnstorming baseballer Bob Feller, who provides delightful comic relief even though he’s not given much of a character arc.
The majority of Satchel Paige is set in a Kansas City boarding house run by Mrs. Hopkins, played with force and dynamism by Carla Nickerson, who lives there with her daughter Moira, portrayed by Deja Morgan as half-child, half-siren. Perhaps the biggest weakness of the text lies in its treatment of Moira, who is used primarily to “warn” of the dangers that designing women pose to talented young men.
The final member of the cast, Billy F. Harden, serves as both narrator and musician throughout various parts of the play. Although Harden’s piano music is delightful, and it infuses joyful energy into the singing of a few jazz tunes throughout, it does grow distracting during some of the quieter scenes.
Director Don Toner has rightfully focused this production around the skill and emotional range of his performers, and anything that draws attention away from those actors seems to weaken the moment.
Although not the greatest script in the world, Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing at Austin Playhouse features strong performances which relate a story that still holds meaning for the racial struggle in America today.
(“Satchel Paige” continues through March 6 at Austin Playhouse.)