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'Toni Stone': Inspiring tale of the first woman in the Negro Leagues

April Matthis plays the title role in "Toni

April Matthis plays the title role in "Toni Stone," about the first woman to play in the Negro Leagues. Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT "Toni Stone"

WHEN | WHERE Through Aug. 11, Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St.

INFO From $79; 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org

BOTTOM LINE Problematic play, but an interesting look at an unsung baseball hero.

Even the most ardent baseball fan probably knows little about Marcenia Lyle "Toni" Stone, the first woman to play in men's professional baseball.

In "Toni Stone" at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre, playwright Lydia R. Diamond ("Stick Fly") tries to rectify that oversight. She's created a provocative if flawed piece of theater, one that often gets lost in the same kind of rambling the lead character, who recites baseball statistics whenever she’s flustered, confesses to early on.

April Matthis portrays Stone with a low-key, humble directness, frequently breaking the fourth wall to address the audience as she relays the story of the baseball-obsessed kid who had to fight every step of the way before setting foot on a field. She shares the stage with eight men — the rest of the team, obviously — but admirably these fine actors do double, sometimes triple duty, portraying the other characters along the way. The most interesting include Syd Pollock, the white owner of the Indianapolis Clowns who gave Stone a spot on the Negro Leagues team in 1953 as a publicity stunt; Alberga, the man decades older whom she'd eventually marry, and Millie, the madam of a brothel where the team slept on occasion when no hotel could be found that would accept blacks. 

It’s a painful story of racial and sexual discrimination, and Diamond sugarcoats nothing. We see Stone go up against an establishment of owners when they suggest slowing down pitches so she’d have a better chance at getting hits. She also deals with her teammates, whose locker-room talk and actions get rough, and white fans, whose racial taunts from the stands are crude and horrifying.

Director Pam MacKinnon tries to maintain control, but the play lacks a linear narrative and is hard to follow. Frequent time jumps add to the confusion that comes from the previously described character shifts. Riccardo Hernandez's bare set of bleachers and stadium lights works well, and there’s interesting high-kicking, bat-twirling choreography from Camille A. Brown (Tony nominee for "Choir Boy").

Audiences have to work at this one, but despite its weaknesses "Toni Stone" shines a well-deserved light on a notable figure in American sports. In the lobby at play's end, a poster offers an update, noting that Stone retired from pro baseball in 1955 and moved to California to become a health care provider. She was inducted into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame in 1993 and died in 1996 at 75. It's a history lesson to be sure, but even if you don't give a hoot about baseball, it's an inspirational story of grit and determination worth telling.

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