Bright Leaf Touring Theater actors Jayla Lomax and Cedric Calhoun recreate the historic moment when Branch Rickey convinces Jackie Robinson to join the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Major League Baseball’s regular season is more than a month away, but fans were given a preview of the Diamond drama at Mount Airy this past weekend.
This did not occur at a local field, but the venue was within the city’s public library on Rockford Street, where a fun and inspiring presentation highlighting the life and times of Jackie Robinson was in full swing on Saturday.
Robinson was the first African-American player to enter Major League Baseball during its modern era, and a Bright Leaf Touring Theater production celebrating his success proved a hit with library audiences. It was organized by the Friends of the Mount Airy Public Library and the Surry Arts Council in recognition of Black History Month.
While Robinson covered a lot of ground before, during, and after his baseball career and interacted with many key figures along the way, the stories and events surrounding it all were highlighted Saturday through the talents of just two actors in little less than an hour.
Bright Leaf Touring Theater’s Cedric Calhoun played Robinson as well as an older man who had seen Robinson act as a youth, while co-star Jayla Lomax nearly stole the show taking on a variety of others.
Among these were Robinson’s mother, his wife and that of the elderly fan, along with several prominent male figures in the athlete’s life. Among them were his drill sergeant in the Army; boxing legend Joe Louis; Branch Rickey, the general manager of the then Brooklyn Dodgers who orchestrated Robinson’s historic entry into the big leagues; a bus driver; and a New York sports announcer.
It all came to life in a series of rapid-fire skits requiring constant costume changes by Lomax, but executed as seamlessly as a stolen base by Jackie Robinson or the infielder snagging a line drive.
The public was also involved in the production.
“I cut my teeth in baseball, so I had to come,” said one person there, Katherine Rose-Plum of Mount Airy, a retiree who played the sport while growing up in New Jersey.
The fact that Jackie Robinson rose to fame during a turbulent period in history, punctuated by segregation, cannot be ignored.
But Saturday’s program was also filled with the message that anyone of any color facing adversity through racism or otherwise can learn from the lessons of perseverance, leadership, and good role models that have contributed to Robinson’s success.
“Knowing that so many people believed in me helped me a lot,” said Calhoun as Robinson, who died in 1972, more than 40 years before a certain film was released.
“I never thought there would be a movie about my life,” added the actor in making a statement Robinson might have made had he been alive to see the premiere of “42,” a title that referred to his uniform number.
Robinson was born in 1919 to a single mother of five who worked various odd jobs to support them.
Eventually he saved up enough to buy a house, but growing up in an affluent community in Pasadena, California—in poverty compared to neighbors who didn’t want them there—Robinson and other black friends were often barred from community recreation.
“I wanted to escape – my mother decided we were going to stay,” he (Calhoun) said on Saturday of his decision not to move elsewhere. Robinson’s mother encouraged him not to give up on the dream of playing baseball, no matter how many hostile people he encountered.
He “didn’t let us fight back,” encouraging his children to do so by excelling rather than engaging in violence.
While Robinson was in his early 20s, America entered World War II and he was drafted into the military.
During that point in Saturday’s production, two kids from the audience were recruited to participate in a short calisthenics session to help recreate the rigors of basic training.
Robinson sought to become an officer, an unachievable goal due to his race.
“It wasn’t the first time I’ve been rejected because of the color of my skin,” Calhoun (like Robinson) told Saturday’s audience, commenting on the absurdity of this:
“Now I want you to think for a minute: have you chosen the color of your eyes?”
Robinson later enlisted heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis (played by Lomax on Saturday) to use his connections to help him become an officer. This led to Robinson attending officer school and being promoted to the rank of second lieutenant.
“We have to stick together if we’re going to change the world,” Louis told Robinson, based on the script.
“But I didn’t earn the right to sit on a bus,” Calhoun recalled (like Robinson) of an event in 1944 that ended his Army career. “I was kicked out of the Army for doing the same thing Rosa Parks did: I refused to give up my post to a white soldier.”
Through the efforts of Branch Rickey, Robinson, who had been a star for the all-black Kansas City Monarchs, joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, bringing more challenges.
“There are no laws on black players playing in the major leagues — there’s just this segregation thing,” Rickey said at the time, according to Saturday’s script.
As well as not being able to eat in certain restaurants, stay in certain hotels or attend certain cinemas during his playing days, Robinson faced resentment from some of his teammates as well as those from opposing clubs.
That didn’t deter his performance, with Robinson gaining a reputation for hitting, speed around the bases, and fielding, which led to his becoming the first African American inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967. baseball has always felt like home to me,” Calhoun (as Robinson) said.
Robinson’s experiences formed a natural stepping stone into joining the civil rights movement after his 10-year acting career, connecting him with people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “What a time to be alive,” the actor who plays Robinson said.
Later in life, Robinson held executive positions in business, between sports and other endeavors, before dying of a heart attack in 1972 at just 53 years old.
Much of his legacy surrounds the groundbreaking role he played in paving the way for other black players like Willie Mays and those of all races to participate in whatever sport they choose, Saturday’s audience was told.
“Jackie Robinson has lived an interesting and exciting life,” Calhoun said at one point Saturday, speaking from the perspective of the actor rather than the dramatic subject.
“This story taught me a lot.”
Tom Joyce can be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.