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Play recounts Robinson's battle against racism


Baseball player Jackie Robinson had more challenges to stare down than a wicked curveball or the pitfalls of becoming a free agent.

As the first African-American to play major league baseball, Robinson faced hostility and abuse from players, fans and the press.

His despair and triumph are chronicled in "Most Valuable Player," a 60-minute drama geared to upper-elementary and middle-school youngsters.

The show will be presented by Toby's Youth Theatre at selected times through March 2 at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia.

The quick-paced production flashes back and forth between Robinson's early years growing up in California to his being voted baseball's Most Valuable Player in 1949.

The play was conceived by Gayle Cornelison and written and developed by Mary Hall Surface and the original company of the California Theatre Centre, about six years ago.

It begins in 1948, during Robinson's second season with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson delivers a soliloquy on letting down those who supported him.

The story is then narrated by Rickey, the Dodger's general manager and part-owner, during an interview for a reporter from the London Times.

Robinson was born in 1919 in Georgia, and grew up in Pasadena, Calif. He was one of five children. His older brother, Mack, finished second behind Jesse Owens in track at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

A talented athlete, Robinson played four sports in high school and in junior college. At the University of California at Los Angeles, he participated in baseball, football, basketball and track. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he attended officer candidate school, later serving as an Army second lieutenant.

After the war, he played for the Kansas City Monarchs, a baseball team in the Negro American League.

During a game, he was spotted by a scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers who was sent by Rickey to find a player to break the color barrier. Signed by the Dodgers in 1946, Robinson was sent to play with its farm club, the Montreal Royals.

At that time, Robinson married Rae Isum. Together they traveled the team's training camp in Florida, where he faced teammates unwilling to play with him and physical and verbal attacks from opposing players and fans.

But the fans in Montreal adored him. After a successful year, he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 as an infielder.

When his signing was announced, some Dodger teammates signed a petition refusing to play. It was withdrawn when Rickey told them they could leave.

Slowly, Robinson was accepted by players and fans and was voted Rookie of the Year. In 1949, he was voted Most Valuable Player. In 1962, he was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The play focuses on the bigotry he faced in his youth and early career, and the courage, wit and athletic prowess he used to fight it.

Several powerful scenes pointing to the indignities he endured include his being locked out of a neighborhood pick-up game as

a child; not

being served in a Florida diner with teammates; and being

intentionally hit with a baseball by an opposing pitcher.

But the pivotal moment comes when Rickey tests the rookie's willingness to withstand the abuse with quiet strength and patience.

Robinson asks if Rickey is looking for a man who isn't afraid to fight back; Rickey answers that he is looking for a player with "guts enough not to fight back."

To realistically portray the prejudice, the play is riddled with blunt racist speech by both neighborhood children and professional players.

The production uses special effects, including two screens where actual slides of Robinson, his family and baseball fans rooting in the stands are displayed.

Audio effects include the crackling of 50-year-old tapes of play-by-play announcer Mel Allen and fans cheering when Robinson steals home.

The production also relies on clever staging to re-create crucial sports scenes. Mime is used when Robinson shoots baskets in college or swings an imaginary bat during a game. Coupled with the real crack of a bat played over the speakers, audience members find themselves looking up to see how far the ball goes.

The story features the colorful characters of old baseball such as Pee Wee Reese, the Dodgers' shortstop who befriended Robinson, and Leo "The Lip" Durocher, the Dodgers' manager in 1948.

Eighteen characters are portrayed by only five actors who turn in strong performances, including Prince Havely as Robinson; Rick Stohler as Branch Rickey; Howard Stregack as Reese and farm team manager Mr. Hopper; Jennifer Dickison as the English reporter and southern and French waitresses; and Peter Crews as southern ballplayer Enos Blackwell and manager Durocher.

To alternate character, actors change dress and accent, although a southern accent is inappropriate for Durocher, who spoke more like a New Yorker.

The flashbacks tend to get confusing, and the opening soliloquy a bit melodramatic, but there is a plenty of action to keep the youngsters' attention.

More than once, audience members will want to applaud player No. 42, who used more than a baseball bat to strike out racism.

Toby's Youth Theatre will present "Most Valuable Player" at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia. Performances are scheduled through March 2. Call the box office for a complete listing of dates and time. Reservations are required. Tickets are $6.35. Information: 730-8311.

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