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Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing
by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan
Directed by Ricardo Khan
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
March 18, 2016

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Robert Karma Robinson Photo by Jon Gitchoff Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan, the playwriting team behind the excellent Fly that was presented at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in 2013, have returned to the Rep with their newest work, Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing. Taking a look at the famous baseball pitcher’s life, as well as the times in which he lived and the events that surrounded the integration of Major League Baseball in the 1940’s, the play certainly addresses a fascinating subject. Still, despite the excellent cast and some clever staging, the result is somewhat unfocused, although still entertaining and educational.

A legendary pitcher who is considered by many to be one of the greatest ever, Satchel Paige (Robert Karma Robinson) spent most of his prime playing days in the Negro Leagues, having been barred from playing in the Major Leagues because he was black, along with many other great black players who either never got to play in the Majors, or who didn’t get to play until late in their careers. The injustice of a system of banning players simply due to the color of their skin is a major theme of this play, which centers on Paige and some of his teammates and white Major League players in 1947 and 1948, shortly after Jackie Robinson became the first black player in the Majors. While baseball is the setting for this play, and a prominent, charismatic pitcher is at its center, this play is about more than just baseball. The story follows Paige and two of his teammates on a barnstorming Negro League All-Star team, veteran Buck O’Neil (Michael Chenevert) and promising newcomer Art Young (Peterson Townsend) on a stop in Kansas City along with a team of white Major Leaguers led by star Cleveland Indians Pitcher Bob Feller (Kohler McKenzie). Feller and young Detroit Tigers rookie Franky Palmieri (Sam Wolf) join Paige and his teammates at a local boarding house run by Paige’s old friend and sometime romantic interest, Mrs. Hopkins (Vanessa A. Jones), whose aspiring jazz singer daughter Moira (Tsilala Brock) attracts the romantic attentions of both Young and Palmieri.  The action is narrated by Jazzman (Eric Person), a saxophone-playing philosopher who comments on the events of the day and of the play.

This play tries to cover a great many issues regarding the integration of baseball, what it was like to live in a society where segregation was the rule, the obvious sense of privilege that benefited the white players no matter how well-meaning they may have been, and the overall injustice of a racist system. Paige is a compelling, fascinating figure, with charm, talent, and a great deal of wit, all portrayed with marvelous energy and style by Robinson. The play’s problem, though, is that it doesn’t seem to be sure whether it wants to be primarily about Paige or about his friends and associates. Most of the play’s action takes place at the boarding house and revolves around the borderline soapy triangle between the ambitious Young and the cocky, somewhat smarmy and entitled Palmieri. Wolf and Townsend are fine in their roles, as is Brock as the naive Moira, but their story seems to be a distraction much of the time. Jones, as Mrs. Hopkins, and Chenevert, as O’Neil, give standout performances as key figures in Paige’s life, and as voices of wisdom, hope, and occasionally regret. McKenzie is as good as can be in the underwritten role of Feller, and Person is a strong presence with his virtuoso saxophone playing in various jazz styles as Jazzman. Paige should probably be the central figure here, and the play starts and ends by focusing on him, but despite the important and challenging issues that are presented, the play is mostly a lot of talking and the story gets a little muddled in the middle. Still, it’s a well-acted and well-cast production.

The staging in the baseball scenes is clever, and scenic designer John Ezell has provided a suitable backdrop for the action, along with excellent lighting by Victor En Yu Tan and memorable projections by Rocco DiSanti. Lauren T. Roark’s costumes are also superb, with excellent attention to detail in the baseball uniforms as well as the contemporary styles of the 1940’s.  The staging is dynamic in the baseball scenes, although everything is more static at the boarding house.

Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing introduces its audience to an important and legendary figure in the history of baseball and of America itself. Although the sense of time and place is well-realized and the performances are strong, I still found myself wishing the story was a little more cohesive, and that the focus on Paige was maintained more clearly.  It seems more like a work in progress than a finished play, in contrast to the truly astounding Fly by the same creative team. Still, the excellent performances and strong production values, along with its important subject matter, make this a play worth seeing.

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Kohler McKenzie, Vanessa A. Jones, Peterson Townsend, Michael Chenevert, Robert Karma Robinson Photo Jon Gitchoff Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing is being presented by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis until April 10, 2016. 

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