‘Toni Stone’ celebrates Negro League baseball hero that time nearly forgot

Alliance Theater production explores racism, sexism, autism and the love of the game.

Credit: Michael Brosilow

Credit: Michael Brosilow

In 1952, Hank Aaron signed a contract to leave the Indianapolis Clowns in the American Negro League and move to the Milwaukee Braves’ farm team system. He went on to become one of the most honored players in baseball history.

The Clowns then signed Toni Stone to take Aaron’s place on the team, making her the first woman to be a regular player on a major league baseball team. She went on to become almost lost to baseball history, barely a footnote.

“There’s so many of our ancestors, giants whose shoulders we stand on, we don’t even know they exist,” says Kedren Spencer, the actress who plays Stone in the play about her life. “So this is just one person whose story we get to tell.”

“Toni Stone,” named best new play of 2019 by the Wall Street Journal, opens at the Alliance Theatre on Feb. 10. It covers Stone’s relentless determination, the racism she faced from society, the sexism she faced from her own Black teammates, her possible autism spectrum disorder and the Jim Crow stereotypes embedded in Negro League baseball.

Credit: Michael Brosilow

Credit: Michael Brosilow

“I was just blown away by this woman who had the audacity to show up every day in spite of everything,” says Spencer. “Even in the best of circumstances it’s so hard to show up to do the things you love. When you are given a calling, one of the hardest choices we have to make is, should I be bold and do the scary, uncertain thing and follow this passion? Or should I do what is expected of me or the practical thing?”

The play, by Lydia R. Diamond based on Martha Ackmann’s biography “Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, the First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League,” is a co-production between the Alliance and Milwaukee Repertory Theater, where it played in January.

The collaboration of the two theaters helps with the logistics of productions that require a certain scale.

“We started in Milwaukee so their production crew could build the set, and then we will move it here,” explains director Tinashe Kajese-Bolden, the recipient of a fellowship from the BOLD Theater Women’s Leadership Circle, an organization started by the Helen Gurley Brown Foundation to develop women artistic directors.

“So often these runs are getting cut shorter and shorter, so co-productions are a way for the actors to really get into their work,” she adds. “They get to live in the storytelling for much longer.”

As Kajese-Bolden watched the play take shape in Milwaukee, “what has really bubbled up for me is the amount of joy and humor in this play … At the core of this story is joy, doing what you love.”

And doing it despite the ugliness of the Jim Crow era. “Toni Stone” shows but a fraction of the minstrel show trappings that white owners forced black players to perform in skits based on racist stereotypes. Hank Aaron, in his autobiography “I Had a Hammer,” recalled the Clowns’ catcher would sometimes play one inning while “relaxing” behind home plate sitting in a rocking chair.

“The owners felt that entertainment would help white audiences not feel threatened by these black athletes,” says Kajese-Bolden. “They would have them dress up in grass skirts, oversized hats. They would have oversized clown mitts and bats to ridicule themselves and take off the sting of their excellence. It was the cost many of these athletes had to pay to play the game they loved.”

Spencer and Kajese-Bolden acknowledge that seeing these demeaning performances from another era can be difficult for modern audiences.

“This play asks us to wrestle with topics that simultaneously bring us pride and pain: baseball and the Jim Crow South,” says Kajese-Bolden. “So absolutely there’s going to be discomfort. Theater has the great power to interrogate our comfort in a way that’s very different from movies, from streaming.”

The ability to depict truth is part of the art of theater, says Spencer.

“There’s a beauty to what we do in the play, to show these audiences this is what these people had to deal with every single day,” she says. “The discomfort is part of the process. You need to make people sit in the truth of what is and what was.”

Credit: Michael Brosilow

Credit: Michael Brosilow

Just as Jackie Robinson faced racist insults from fellow ballplayers when he broke the color barrier in 1947, Stone faced sexist insults from her teammates, despite her abilities. The Clowns’ owner reportedly wanted her to play in a skirt, but she refused.

“Racism and patriarchy go hand in hand,” says Spencer. “And just because you are a victim of something does not mean you are immune from being a perpetrator of something. She was assaulted, she was harassed. She got it from all sides. That is a testament to her resilience.”

Spencer was fortunate to have been very athletic growing up, which helps her act the physically demanding role. But she was also helped by having spent five years as a special education teacher working with children and young adults with autism spectrum disorders. Although no one can know for sure, it is likely Stone was on the that spectrum.

“Back then there wasn’t a diagnosis for folks who had autism spectrum disorder, so we have to look for clues,” Spencer says. “They would talk about how literal she was. They would talk about how she did not take social cues very well. Her passion for the sport was almost a compulsion. This leads us to believe she was probably high functioning Asperger Syndrome on the spectrum.

“A lot of people don’t understand how neurodivergence affects these really special people and how it’s their superpower,” she continues. “Sometimes it makes it hard for you to communicate with others, and sometimes it makes you so good at one thing that that’s all you can focus on. And that’s what gets you through every day.”

Stone was born Marcenia Lyle, but she was nicknamed “Tomboy” as a girl and changed her name to Toni Stone as a young adult as her way of naming that masculine aspect of herself.

“Names are so important in so many cultures, but specifically in African and Black culture — having names that were taken away from us, and then being able to rename ourselves,” says Kajese-Bolden.

When the cast was rehearsing and bonding, she says they talked about Black Lives Matter and the hashtag #Sayhername for Breonna Taylor.

“That undercurrent was in the room every single day,” says Kajese-Bolden. “People will walk away from this saying Toni’s name and acknowledging she was here.”


“Toni Stone.” Feb. 10-27. $25-$78. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4600, alliancetheatre.org.