Don’t let the title fool you. There’s very little Kansas City jazz in the snappily written new play “Kansas City Swing,” co-written by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan (who also directed), now having its world premiere at the Crossroads Theater Company. But there are swinging bats as well as fists in this entertaining and enlightening trip back to 1947 in Kansas City.
The then already legendary 41-year-old Satchel Paige has yet to be hired by the St. Louis Browns. He has rounded up a team of all-stars from the Negro League during their off-season. They are barnstorming across the country for extra money with famed pitcher Bob Feller and his team of all-stars recruited from both major leagues.
A lot of history and a lot of changes have begun to happen in baseball with the hiring of the major league’s first black player, Jackie Robinson. Baseball history buffs may know about Paige’s disappointment, but also his own reasons in not pressing to be the first major league black player. Some of Paige’s disappointments as well as his hopes and dreams are rigorously expressed through Robert Karma Robinson’s fine performance, as are the aspirations of second baseman Buck O’Neil (an intense performance by Jacinto Taras Riddick), who was to become the major league’s first Negro scout. Rivalry and tension among the other players on the traveling team are not only a product of the game but also a by-product of a time when integration and racial equality were as tentative and tremulous as affairs of the heart.
Plenty of robust acting, under Khan’s sturdy direction, brings nuance and excitement into play and in to a play that supports its historical perspective with a bracing bit of melodramatic histrionics. “Somebody real smart once told me American history comes in two halves: Before Jackie, and After Jackie,” says O’Neil in the first scene, set in a baseball field outside Kansas City. With him are the other players, Feller (Christopher Kann), Art Young (Serge Thony), and Franky Palmieri (Joe Sinopoli), and Paige.
It takes a lot of baseball jargon, friendly baiting, and cautious chiding — much of which is expository information — to lay the groundwork for the dramatic fireworks that will follow. The primary action, however, is set in an elegant boarding house in Kansas City. Renowned for welcoming black guests and listed as such in the Green Book (“when traveling in America while Colored”) the residence is owned by the beautiful and well-educated Mrs. Hopkins (a vibrant performance by Kim Brockington), who evidently has a romantic history with Paige. That history also includes “the king of colored baseball,” telling the surprised Mrs. Hopkins that he’s getting married in a month.
One of the more interesting socio-economic aspects of the time exposed in the play concerns the crumbling of the walls of segregation and how it also led to the failure of many small black businesses. The widow’s choice to marry a rich dentist years ago, instead of Paige, has enabled her to have a lucrative business. However, it has begun to deteriorate, as hotels on the other side of Kansas City have started to welcome black guests. And Mrs. Hopkins makes it clear that the end is in sight with the dismissal of her staff.
The prospect of failure is not in the mind set of Mrs. Hopkins’ daughter, Moira (Katherine Ella Wood), who has her hopes pinned on becoming a jazz singer and gives a sampling with “Is You Is, or Is You Ain’t My Baby.” Unfortunately music, which makes only fitful appearances, from my perspective should have been used more assertively.
But, as it is, music is secondary to the mayhem that is caused by the flirtatious Moira. It is her unbridled sexuality that creates a situation at the boarding house with near-tragic results, particularly as it affects Palmieri, the short-tempered, not-too-bright rookie from Brooklyn, and the equally ambitious Young. A bit hokey, but it provides the main conflict in the play as well as the biggest clash among the characters. Except for one violent episode, this play relies on the testy and pervading turbulence among all the male characters.
Shared self-reflection and personal stories make up a lot of the text, but most empowering is O’Neil’s memory of the moment when he knew that “baseball’s my life, man.” He knew he was not going to go back to “plucking celery or cutting cane.” Just as O’Neil expresses the sentiments of all the players, Mrs. Hopkins has a few wise words on responsibility for her daughter who is leaving home to walk into a life that her parents never dreamed was possible.
By the collaborators of “Fly” (their acclaimed 2009 play about the Tuskegee Airmen), “Kansas City Swing” may not really fly or even swing as implied, but it does pitch its story of the “oldest rookie in baseball and the first Negro to ever take the mound” with commendable earnestness and plenty of passion.
Kansas City Swing, Crossroads Theater Company, Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, October 27, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. $50. www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org or 732-545-8100.