Alliance scores a hit with baseball bio ‘Toni Stone’

She might not be the most reliable narrator of her own story — as she eventually admits to a quickly captivated Alliance Theatre audience, she often strays off course and doesn’t always recount the assorted aspects of her life “all nice and neat” — but there’s no mistaking Toni Stone’s tenacious spirit or her unprecedented, if belatedly acknowledged, claim to fame.

An “original play” by the notable Lydia R. Diamond (“Smart People,” “Stick Fly”), although it’s actually based on Martha Ackmann’s book “Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone,” the Alliance’s “Toni Stone,” a co-production with Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, tells the overlooked story of Stone, the first woman to play baseball in the male-dominated Negro Leagues of the 1940s and ‘50s. The show primarily unfolds in 1953, when she joined the Indianapolis Clowns to take over second base from none other than Hank Aaron.

This dynamic and striking staging by Atlanta director Tinashe Kajese-Bolden (Synchronicity’s “Eclipsed,” True Colors’ “School Girls”) is skillfully bolstered by the absolutely stirring portrayal of Kedren Spencer in the title role. In her opening monologue, as the other eight members of the Clowns form behind her, warming up as though in slow-motion, she ruminates about the “weight” of the baseball, and tries to articulate for those of us laypeople in attendance the meaningful pursuit of “reaching” for it.

Credit: Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

It’s one of several speeches that Toni delivers throughout the play about what the sport means to her, about “feeling the game” and “finding the rhythm” or “letting it find you.” Whether or not you fully grasp what she sometimes struggles for the words to convey, the beauty and power of Spencer’s performance is that you don’t need to know that much about baseball, or to even be a fan of it, necessarily, to appreciate how profoundly the pastime resonates with Toni.

She introduces her teammates in a spirited roll call, the first of a few routines in the show to feature the vigorous choreography of Dell Howlett, exuberantly executed by a versatile ensemble of actors (with an affectionate nod of sorts to the Harlem Globetrotters). Many of the men also have occasion to pinch-hit playing other roles in formative flashbacks from Toni’s life.

Amar Atkins, for instance, enjoys a couple of humorous scenes as Toni’s bossy mother. By swiping the palms of their hands in front of their faces (and with a slight assist from designer Sharath Patel’s sound effects), they represent some white characters, too — like Clowns owner Sol Pollock (Dane Troy), a genial Irish priest (Lau’rie Roach), or, most hauntingly, a crowd of angry spectators hurling racial epithets at the Black players during a game. (The evocative lighting, by the way, is designed by Thom Weaver.)

Elsewhere, two of Atlanta’s finest talents register strongly: Eric J. Little as the jovial team joker (whose story about his cheating wife is priceless), and Geoffrey D. Williams as a reader of W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington (and something of an etymology expert). So does Milwaukee-based Dimonte Henning as the play’s principal antagonist (besides, that is, the motley racists the team encounters while barnstorming across the segregated South).

Credit: Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

Standing apart quite formidably in the supporting cast are New York actor Sekou Laidlow and local favorite Enoch King. Laidlow’s Alberga initially comes across as a “sweet-talking” love interest for Toni, before subtly evolving into an activist on “civic matters,” impressing upon her the importance of voting and paying taxes. Later, he counsels her from the sidelines in negotiating the salary she deserves, and about balancing her pride with her desire to play ball.

At first flush, King has the rather unenviable task of resorting to drag in order to portray Millie, the proprietress of a backwoods brothel who takes Toni under her maternal wing. But, as their relationship develops and deepens over the course of the story, King brilliantly transforms what could have been a silly sight gag or a gamey caricature into an entirely credible and authentic woman — virtually every bit as much so as Diamond’s eponymous heroine herself.

ExploreGoogle Doodle honors female pro baseball player Toni Stone for Black History Month


THEATER REVIEW

“Toni Stone”

Through Feb. 27. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. $25-$78 ($10 for teens). Alliance Theatre (at the Woodruff Arts Center), 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, www.alliancetheatre.org.

Bottom line: An amazing true story, thrillingly realized.