THE LAST SEASON
ETA Creative Arts Foundation
Element Theatre Company
at the Project
When Jackie Robinson made his decision to accept Branch Rickey's invitation to play with the Brooklyn Dodgers--thereby becoming the first black man to compete in the hitherto all-white major leagues--his move was hailed as a giant step toward equality. It also spelled the beginning of the end for the black baseball leagues and the extensive industry that had grown up around them, an upheaval foreseen in Ed Schmidt's Mister Rickey Calls a Meeting (produced last year by the Chicago Theatre Company). In The Last Season, playwright Christopher Moore continues the saga of the loss that accompanied the gains made by desegregating the all-American sport.
It's 1947, the war is over, and the Montgomery Kings are going for their record-breaking third season as champions of the black baseball leagues. The team is elated over its expected victory, basking in glory and acclaim; Robinson's trials are only distant hearsay. Gradually, however, the changes inspired by this lone representative of the race affect the Alabama team's morale: increasingly their fans forsake them to cheer in the white man's ballparks, and one player after another falls prey to personal ambition. By the end of the season the Kings have won their pennant but their esprit de corps has eroded irreparably, and everyone knows that the future will be a very different ball game.
The Last Season is not really about baseball, of course, but about the compromises necessary to any social change--it asks whether a large piece of a small pie is sweeter than a small piece of a large one. Pitcher Henry Simmons, craving recognition, goes AWOL to attend a tryout for a major-league team, but it turns out to be bogus--a substandard pitcher on a substandard field throwing to hundreds of hopeful black athletes, each of whom has exactly one chance at bat. Second baseman Sugie Brookfield hears that a scout from the Boston Red Sox is looking for a shortstop and begins to grandstand, showing off at the expense of team play. Coach Sam Foster watches the priorities of the team's owners turn from sportsmanship to commercial success--and the practice of "selling" players suddenly takes on an ominous ring, as more black players are contracted from black owners to white. The coach finally sacrifices his career rather than sully the dignity of the game. The only one to successfully weather the storms of the summer of '47 is the veteran catcher Elrod Payne, who has seen hard times and doggedly prepares to see more. (His teammates puzzle over his off-season regular job and laugh at his habit of carrying his own food on trips, a caution against restaurants that don't allow "coloreds.") Appropriately, The Last Season is narrated from Payne's point of view, with no judgment or moralizing. History, after all, moves on, and an individual's only choice is whether to move with it or not.
It's tempting to play this kind of story bigger than life, swinging like a hapless batter at every cheap emotional pitch the script throws. But Chuck Smith (one of the most underrated directors in Chicago) keeps a tight rein on his ETA Creative Arts Foundation cast, never permitting them to rush the tempo of this idyllic last summer's tale. The result is ensemble work worthy of a championship team, each actor taking just the right amount of time and revealing only as much of his character's inner workings as we need to know. On this roster of uniformly excellent performances, standouts include Cedric Young, splendidly mature in the role of the laconic Elrod; Kristian Chanin Crawford as the weary coach; Ted Love as the driven Henry, his energy all but crackling in the air around him like Saint Elmo's fire; and Nick Gillie as Sugie, teetering between his responsibilities to himself and to his teammates. (His final crucial decision was heartily applauded by the audience on the night I attended.)
It's no news that making omelets can be hard on eggs. And who could have predicted, seeing Jackie Robinson alone on the field, that black athletes would eventually come to dominate American sports? The Last Season documents the passing of a cultural phenomenon that gave security and enfranchisement to thousands of worthy citizens, and when the Montgomery Kings join together in one last toast to a unity doomed to extinction, even the most diehard crusader may feel a pang of regret at the harsh measures progress requires.
Stops, the play that provides the name for Element Theatre Company's evening of one-acts, has been dropped from the program, which now consists only of Lanford Wilson's A Poster of the Cosmos and Arthur Miller's The Last Yankee. A Poster of the Cosmos is a monologue delivered by a young man whose bizarre farewell to his dying lover has prompted his arrest; Bill Blank delivers a tightly focused portrait of the pastry cook caught by his own impulses. Dan Flannery and Gene Janson are likewise competent in The Last Yankee, as facile a bit of blue-collar boosterism as you're likely to find by your garden-variety American genius. Both productions are handicapped, however, by the direction of Johannes Marlena, who seems bent on rendering his actors as immobile and expressionless as possible, as if they'd rehearsed in tanning booths. At their best Wilson and Miller are superlative wordsmiths, but neither of these two pieces can walk by itself.