Joey is a ten-year-old with a very special gift: he can travel through time by holding a baseball card and concentrating. Joey’s adventures through time meeting various baseball players are detailed in a series of “Baseball Card Adventures” children’s novels by Dan Gutman, with titles such as Honus & Me (1997), Babe & Me (2000), and Shoeless Joe & Me (2002). Jackie & Me (1999), the second novel in the series, covers Joey traveling back to 1947 in order to meet Jackie Robinson, the first black player in the major leagues. Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, winning Rookie of the Year for the Dodgers in a time when most of the country was still quite segregated. Columbus Children’s Theatre is now presenting Jackie & Me as a play, perfectly timed to be a part of Black History Month.
So much of the success of the show rests on the shoulders of Colin Grubbs as Joey, the time traveler who begins as a Polish white boy dealing with anger issues and awakens as a black boy in 1947! That little plot twist of changing skin colors reminded me of the musical Finian’s Rainbow (1947), but what better way to illustrate how black people (referred to as “colored” or “negroes” in the play) were treated than to have a red-headed white boy be treated as a black boy by the cast? Mr. Grubbs is in every scene, and all of the action revolves around him; he controls so much of the pacing by how and when he chooses to respond, and his excellent timing is quite startling. A key scene requires Mr. Grubbs to say the “N word,” and he doesn’t take the task lightly; the moment feels genuine because of the way he handles it.
Mr. Grubbs is surrounded by some terrific stage veterans, many playing several roles; these are the kind of people who are so good that they make their younger, less experienced co-stars rise to the occasion. Ken Erney is Flip, the kind sports memorabilia store owner who supplies the rare Jackie Robinson card needed for time travel; Brent Alan Burington plays Branch Rickey, the sharp Dodgers owner who gives Jackie Robinson his chance in the major league; Mitchell Spiro plays a spirited coach and manager, a bundle of nerves and energy akin to Mickey Rooney; Catherine Cryan is Mrs. Herskowitz, the sweet shopkeeper who hands out promotional baseball cards, but she also plays a woman on the street who spits at poor Joey when he forgets to tow the “whites only” line; Jenna Lee Shively is caring but stern as Joey’s mom; and Eric Qualls plays a calm and controlled Jackie Robinson.
Standouts in the young ensemble include Jacob Cohen as Ant, a fellow batboy from the past who taunts Joey; and Louis Weiss, playing a student and a kid in Brooklyn. Mr. Cohen has to say and do some despicable things to Joey without being so awful that he throws the show off balance; he performs intelligently while also embracing his inner bully. Mr. Weiss doesn’t have a great deal of lines to say, but his expressions throughout the play are quite funny and say more than enough; at any point he can be counted on to be responding with an array of funny facial expressions to what is going on around him.
Ray Zupp’s set, complete with ramps and a raised platform behind a baseball diamond on the stage floor, is an excellent setting for the action; it’s one of those sets that is best appreciated from the middle on back in the audience so the full breadth of it can be taken in. Director William Goldsmith is successful in keeping the energy of the cast up between the scenes involving the baseball games, only faltering with the storytelling in a few notable places; a scene between Joey and Ant in the locker room where Joey scares Ant with his revelation about time travel plays out awkwardly, and the first act closing where Joey reads a letter signed by much of the team requesting to be traded rather than play on the field “with a negro” is treated as a throwaway moment without the proper reverence and buildup.
With any adaptation there will be changes made for one reason or another; while overall the stage adaptation of Jackie & Me by Steven Dietz (he is credited with the stage script along with the writer of the novel, Dan Gutman) is solid, there were a few changes that didn’t make sense to me. For example, in the play Flip lets Joey borrow his rare Jackie Robinson card for $20; in the novel he lends it to him for free, which makes a heck of a lot more sense. Who would someone charge a little boy to “rent” a baseball card? The aforementioned scene involving several Dodgers signing a petition against Jackie Robinson only to have one of them balk and tear it up has been weakened, and the use of racial slurs has been greatly tamed (most of which is understandable – the “N word” doesn’t need to be shouted all the time to get the point across). Ant calls Joey the “N word” in the novel, but in the play Joey reads a letter that contains the word. It’s an odd shift to have Joey, now a black boy when he appears in 1947, to be the one character that says that word; it changes the impact to have the message soft pedaled in that way. There is a lot more to the novel that wouldn’t have fit into this ninety-minute, two-act play, and I recommend reading it; I just think a few of the changes were unnecessary in the transition from page to stage.
Still, Jackie & Me is that rare children’s show that doesn’t talk down to its young target audience. A serious message about prejudice and fear is mixed in delicately with all of the fun and humor, and yet it doesn’t come off as heavy-handed or too simple. The suggested age of seven and up seems right, though kids aren’t required to enjoy this production. No prior knowledge of baseball is needed either as this is more a human story than anything else.