Theatre Guild’s ‘Mr. Rickey’ addresses color barrier in baseball

(Back row, left to right) Saul Caplan (Branch Rickey), Robert Culpepper (Clancy Hope), Edward Hill (Paul Robeson), (front row, left to right) Robert-Wayne Waldron (Joe Louis), Shaun Diggs (Jackie Robinson), and Franklin Johnson (Bill “Bojangles” Robinson) comprise the cast of the Dayton Theatre Guild’s production of “Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting” slated Jan. 24-Feb. 9. CRAIG ROBERTS/CONTRIBUTED
(Back row, left to right) Saul Caplan (Branch Rickey), Robert Culpepper (Clancy Hope), Edward Hill (Paul Robeson), (front row, left to right) Robert-Wayne Waldron (Joe Louis), Shaun Diggs (Jackie Robinson), and Franklin Johnson (Bill “Bojangles” Robinson) comprise the cast of the Dayton Theatre Guild’s production of “Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting” slated Jan. 24-Feb. 9. CRAIG ROBERTS/CONTRIBUTED

Ohio native and legendary Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey’s monumental decision to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier and sign Jackie Robinson is the catalyst of Ed Schmidt’s aptly titled 1989 drama “Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting,” which will be presented by the Dayton Theatre Guild Jan. 24-Feb. 9.

Set in a New York City hotel room in the spring of 1947, the play imagines a crucial discussion overseen by Rickey in which he evaluates the African-American community’s reaction to his groundbreaking vision. In addition to Robinson, he invites heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, celebrated singer/actor/activist Paul Robeson and popular vaudeville entertainer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to share their thoughts. Along the way, motives are questioned and debate ensues.

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“In some ways, it is about the gathering of the influential African-American men of the time, but mostly because they represent different voices,” said director Rick Flynn, who previously directed “Slowgirl” for the Guild. “We often wrongly assume communities speak with one voice whether it’s the African-American community, gay community, Republicans, Democrats, etc. This show reveals (the truth) that there are many voices within a community. Some of those voices completely contradict each other, but they’re all valid voices that should be heard.”

“(This play) shows (African-Americans) don’t have a monolithic frame of mind,” echoed Shaun Diggs, who will make his Guild debut as Jackie Robinson and has been previously seen in “Blues for an Alabama Sky” at Sinclair Community College and “The Library” with Playground Theatre and the University of Dayton. “I love the underlying motives by some of the characters in the play, which is a nice twist to the plot. The script says a lot in so many subtle and sometimes loud ways. I hope the audience comes with open ears and an open mind.”

Taking a cue from director Joe Mantello, who cast Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow as Hillary and Bill Clinton last season in the Broadway production of Lucas Hnath’s “Hillary and Clinton,” Flynn chose actors who do not resemble their iconic characters. Capturing the essence of the characters is paramount instead.

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“(Rick) said to us (at) auditions he (was) looking to see what (we) were able to do with the dialogue, how (we) bring the characters to life, and just have fun with it,” said Franklin Johnson, who has appeared in many productions with the Guild and Dayton Playhouse and will portray Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. “I bear no physical resemblance to Bojangles, but in spite of how Rick determined the criteria for the final casting, we all have spent time researching the history. Someone continues to have something new to share with the group regarding everything from what would or would not have been said or done in front of Branch Rickey to what was or was not available in a New York hotel room in 1947. Everyone has been quite committed.”

The cast includes Guild veteran Saul Caplan in the titular role, Robert Culpepper as Clancy Hope, Robert-Wayne Waldron as Joe Louis, and Edward Hill as Paul Robeson. Culpepper, Waldron and Hill join Diggs in delivering Guild debuts. Caplan, a member of the Dayton Theatre Hall of Fame, who has long considered Rickey a personal hero, notably finds Schmidt’s fictionalization of all the characters to be believable representations. He also views the script’s exploration of Rickey’s motives appealing, especially his willingness to take a giant risk.

“I think (Rickey) honestly and truly believed in integration, but was his altruism tainted by self-serving motives?” Caplan said. “Did he have something to gain from integration? He speaks a couple of times that his job as a baseball general manager is to win ballgames. He sees a huge source of athletic talent that are off-limits to him unless he can change the rules. And, like a savvy gold miner, he knows if he’s the first to get to the mother lode, he will be able to reap the richest rewards. Surely other owners and managers saw the same situation, but they were unwilling to take the risk and that’s where Rickey stands out. He went for it. It’s an interesting example of the rare time when self-service and morality are aligned.”

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Although the topics addressed in the play are grounded in thought-provoking sentiments of over 70 years ago, Flynn and his cast are encouraged by the relevancy of the conversation driving the action.

“A (particular) theme running through the show is ‘evolution vs. revolution,’” Caplan added. “Rickey’s plan of slow, orderly, long-term change (is presented) against Paul Robeson’s desire to upend the entire system. This same conflict played out 20 years later in the Martin Luther King Jr. vs. Malcolm X debate. But most of all, I think the audience is going to enjoy watching brave men battle injustice, racism and each other.”

“I hope this show will make people think,” Flynn said. “(I hope it makes them) consider a different experience than their own and see the common humanity that connects us all. In addition, I hope it will teach us to listen to other voices, even if they disagree with ours. In 2020, that idea seems more important than ever. We stand stronger together than we do apart.”

WANT TO GO?

What: "Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting"

Where: Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Ave., Dayton

When: Jan. 24-Feb. 9; 8 p.m. Fridays; 5 p.m. Saturdays (with the exception of the Jan. 25 performance at 8 p.m.); and 3 p.m. Sundays

Cost: $13-$20

Tickets: Call (937) 278-5993 or visit daytontheatreguild.org

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