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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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Fly

By Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan

Directed by Ricardo Khan

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

October 18, 2013

Terrell Donnell Sledge as J. Allen, Will Cobbs as Oscar, David Pegram as Chet Simpkins and Eddie R. Brown III as W.W. Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Terrell Donnell Sledge as J. Allen, Will Cobbs as Oscar, David Pegram as Chet Simpkins and Eddie R. Brown III as W.W.
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Tuskegee Airmen are more than a story in a history book.  They were real men, with real dreams and real struggles, and ultimately, they were real heroes. “History is the river we stand in, knee deep” says Army Air Corps veteran Chet Simpkins (David Pegram) upon looking back at his time serving with the famed group of African American aviators in World War II, noting that people don’t usually realize they’re making history until it’s in the books. Simpkins has been invited, along with other surviving Tuskegee vets, to attend the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2008, and he narrates the story of his training as a young recruit, and his experiences with the grueling training regime and brutality of war in addition to the also brutal racism of the era. This is Fly at the Rep, a truly astounding production that celebrates the bravery of these men and their perseverance through adversity and tragedy, as well as bringing to the audience a unique experience of flight.

The story, based on the experiences of real Tuskegee vets, follows four young men with different backgrounds and motives, but the same ultimate goal—to be Army Air Corps pilots. Chet, from New York City, who is already a licensed pilot even though he’s the youngest of the group, enlists for the love of flying.  W.W. (Eddie R. Brown, III), from Chicago, signs up to impress a girl.  J. Allen (Terrell Donnell Sledge), from the West Indies, wants to please his father, and Oscar (Will Cobbs), from Iowa, joins up because he was told a black man can’t succeed as a pilot and he wants to prove the narrow-minded naysayers wrong. We get to see the grueling training program—which is all the more harrowing for the Tuskegee recruits because of the institutionalized racism of the time, where black men are not expected to be able to do the same jobs as white men and aren’t even allowed to drink in the bars unless they go to the back room. They are insulted, underestimated, and pressured to wash out by their white instructors (Timothy Sekk and Cary Donaldson) and commanding officer (Greg Brostrom), but they stand their ground and fly their planes.  There are also interpersonal conflicts among the recruits themselves and, finally, there is the war overseas, where the Tuskegee men fly fighters escorting bombers on missions. Throughout all this action there is the Tap Griot (Omar Edwards), a dancer who portrays the emotions of the characters as the story unfolds.

One of the great things about live theatre is that so often, it is able to surprise me. This show is like nothing I’ve seen before. The staging is dynamic and takes the audience into the middle of the action, and up to the skies with the brave young pilots. The flying scenes are truly thrilling even though they are staged with surprising simplicity.  Simple metal chairs become the training planes and fighters, with the aid of sound effects, projected images on several screens, and sometimes a fog machine.  The suspense of the training flights and, ultimately, the combat missions is made unbelievably realistic with just that simple staging and the excellent performances of the actors.

The performances are nothing short of wonderful. Pegram is the heart of the show as Chet, the eager young recruit with an infectious love of flight.  He also often serves as a peacemaker in the midst of his friends’ conflicts. Cobbs as the determined, idealistic Oscar is also excellent, as is Brown as the slick and smooth-talking W.W. Sledge as the earnest J. Allen is convincing as well, and all four of these actors make their scenes completely believable, from the initial distrust to the inter-personal conflicts and sure but gradual bonding. Sekk and Donaldson are also great in the war scenes as two Caucasian bomber pilots who are escorted by the Tuskegee men on a series of suspenseful missions.  I found the war missions to be the most intense and engaging part of the play, particularly a scene involving the song “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” that’s alternately funny and extremely moving.  There’s also a great scene late in the show that uses the song “Straighten Up and Fly Right”. The excellent performances full of truth and conviction combined with a convincing World War II atmosphere work together to make a truly spellbinding presentation.

In the midst of all of this action and compelling story is the omnipresent Tap Griot, electrifyingly danced and acted by Omar Edwards.  He opens the show, tapping before a projected tableau of the history of injustice toward African Americans and the hope and determination of the Civil Rights Movement, and reappears throughout the story, portraying the four main characters’ emotions in the midst of their various conflicts and triumphs.  When a character experiences disappointment, or anger, or hope, or relief, Edwards is there with his dynamic, expressive tapping, helping the audience to not only see what the pilots are experiencing, but to feel it.

The set is minimal, with the chairs that double as planes, footlockers for the recruits, and occasional furniture as needed.  This is all backed by a series of screens framing the stage, featuring projections to fit the various situations in the play and, at the end, to show a photo montage of real Tuskegee airmen, in action during the war and many years later, as veterans at President Obama’s inauguration.  The sound effects, lighting and fog effects contribute to the overall atmosphere and are superbly arranged by designers Rui Rita and Jake DeGroot (lighting) and John Gormada (sound).

This play serves an an excellent education for today’s audiences about an important chapter in American history that needs to be remembered. These young men were all the more courageous for having endured such vile treatment and the evils of segregation, and then risking their lives to defend their countrymen in the war. Even though this is a “war story” and as such, there are a few elements that are somewhat predictable, what is presented is done so with real drama, energy, intelligence and wit, and in a thoroughly convincing way. It’s a story that must continue to be told, lest we forget its valuable lessons.

This production is live theatre at its best. It’s a well told story, fully realized by an outstanding cast and crew, conveying a message of determination and hope in the midst of great injustice. It’s the story of a group of determined young men who endured great trials and became heroes. It’s a history lesson brought to life in a way that I will remember for years to come, and another example of top-notch theatre from the Rep.

Omar Edwards as the Tap Griot Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Omar Edwards as the Tap Griot
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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