Lookingglass captures the ambiguity of baseball's barrier-shattering moment

THEATER REVIEW: "Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting" at Lookingglass Theatre ★★★½

"Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting" at Lookingglass Theatre on Michigan Avenue.

"Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting" at Lookingglass Theatre on Michigan Avenue. (January 16, 2012)

There's a moment in "Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting," the terrific new show at the Lookingglass Theatre, when the caller of the 1947 meeting, Branch Rickey, president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, throws a crumpled shirt into the arms of Jackie Robinson. Javon Johnson, the actor playing Robinson, looks down at the uniform and all it represents, and his face first registers pride at a deeply personal ambition realized — he, Jackie Robinson, is to play in the major leagues! — and, a beat later, raw fear that this individual achievement will not be seen as individual at all by anyone outside of the hotel room he is standing in.

He will be a symbol and will be fought over. Robinson will get everything he wants, and lose himself in the process.

The richness and complexity of that moment from an uncompromising actor is emblematic of many such moments in J. Nicole Brooks' deftly cast and exceptionally lively and engaging production, a show that takes a rather didactic, debate-centered script by Ed Schmidt that premiered nearly 20 years ago on the East Coast and didn't hit any home runs, and, with the help of richly atmospheric design from Sibyl Wickersheimer and blazing lights from Brian Bembridge, turns it into a fresh, engaging and accessible 90 minutes. Brooks' production crackles with dramatic tension and keeps its eye firmly on the main theme of the night. That would be how pioneering African-Americans in sports and entertainment were torn apart by the clash of their legitimate right to individual achievement — and all the necessary compromises with smarmy power brokers — with the power of their symbolism and the perceived obligation to do the right thing by their entire race. As if anybody could do right by his entire race.

Schmidt took his cue from a paragraph in an autobiography of boxer Joe Louis, noting that Rickey (played here by Larry Neumann Jr., with subtle force) talked with the Brown Bomber, as well as Paul Robeson and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, about helping Robinson carry the burden of being the first black player in the major leagues. Schmidt then took an imaginative leap (not dissimilar from the it-maybe-kinda-happened device that put Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis together in "Million Dollar Quartet") imagining that Rickey, on the eve of announcing Robinson's promotion, calls Louis, Robeson and Robinson to a meeting, asking for their support in what Rickey was about to do. The savvy Rickey's plan is to walk out these black all-stars into the flashbulbs of the tipped-off photographers and sportswriters waiting in the lobby, a public show of support for an integrative act that was to change the world for one talented individual, with maybe more to follow, but spell the beginning of the end of the Negro Leagues, a livelihood for thousands, where whites did not run the show.

The tone of Schmidt's writing is carefully balanced — Rickey is seen as a man who seems to want to do the right thing, and if that right thing benefits him and must be done slowly and pragmatically, then so be it. His main antagonist is Robeson, played with unstinting authority by Steppenwolf Theatre actor James Vincent Meredith, who immediately grasps both the patronizing aspect of this gesture for blacks in baseball, and whose communist inclinations render him unsympathetic to the idea of individual achievement. With Bill Robinson (Ernest Perry Jr.) and Louis (Anthony Fleming III) caught between these views, Meredith's Robeson fights for the bigger picture, but also degrades the achievements of a boxer and entertainer who had no choice but to fight in a white world. Jackie Robinson, of course, mostly wants to play ball. But then, none of us can just play ball.

One thing you have to swallow here is that Rickey would not have anticipated Robeson's reaction. There are a few clunky structural devices in this script wherein people conveniently leave the room so that the debate can move in a different direction, and it's never entirely clear whether these men are in a hurry to get this decided. It all seems to depend on the needs of the scene. So you have to get past all that. Still, Schmidt has revised and shortened the script, removing its initial flashback structure in favor of this zestier, present-tense structure in which the stakes can rise fast.

For her part, Brooks finds much humor in the piece — Fleming is especially colorful yet volatile as the coiled-up Louis — and she also has some fun with the wide-eyed bellboy (amusingly played by Kevin Douglas), whom Schmidt uses to introduce the context of the events and the great stature of the attendees. But the night works because Brooks and her actors step out from beyond the usual confines of a 90-minute, hotel room drama with much speechifying and not only play risky ball with one another, but also spar as if they are all stuck in a real-time ring, with none of them knowing what the others are about to do.

Sports plays are very much in vogue — Broadway last season had a piece about Vince Lombardi, and a piece about Larry Bird and Magic Johnson is on its way. In this production, anyway, "Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting" strikes me as a very commercial property that should attract a broad audience to the Water Tower Water Works. It's a show that is never boring for a moment, that goes beyond the usual sports-drama cliches and that speaks to how athletes are always expected to pulse with ruthless ambition but be ever-mindful of their public obligations.

"Mr Rickey" certainly looks underneath the simplistic depiction of Robinson's Dodgerdom as a great moment in American history. But there's another scene in Brooks' production that shows the potency of sports mythology. This time it's Fleming's Louis, a powerful, angry, cautious fighter whom we see reduced to wide-eyed, grinning pride when he sees a fellow black athlete on the cusp of top billing. In such moments, it is easy — maybe desirable, maybe not — for all of us to forget who is running the show and why.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @chrisjonestrib

When: Through Feb. 19

Where: Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Tickets: $20-$68 at 312-337-0665 or lookingglasstheatre.org.

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