In 1946, a song called “The Gypsy” stayed in the top spot on the American popular music charts for 13 weeks. It was the biggest chart success for a quartet of black singers dubbed, in the sometimes unintentional but omnipresent racism of the time, The Ink Spots. Their music plays sweetly in the background as you enter Wells Fargo Playhouse at ImaginOn to watch “Jackie & Me.”
That may be a subtle reminder of the world you’re about to enter, the one where Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier for Major League Baseball in April 1947. The play by Steven Dietz isn’t quite that subtle – at the end, it tells us in slogans everything it has shown us for 85 minutes – but perhaps the receptive Children’s Theatre of Charlotte audience benefited from a little underlining.
Charlotte playgoers already know Dietz from his work for adults: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte produced his “Yankee Tavern” and “Becky’s New Car” in the last five seasons. Children’s Theatre did his “Go, Dog, Go!” (written with his wife, Allison Gregory) nine years ago, and the playwright understands how to talk to all ages. Kids responded with knowing laughter when Joey Stoshack, the “me” of the title, informed the audience that “‘We’ll see’ is what a parent says when they want to say ‘no’ as slowly as possible.”
Baseball-mad Joey (Chester Shepherd) has the ability to travel back in time to the year on any baseball card he holds. When a teacher assigns reports on important African-Americans, he picks Robinson and goes back to 1947 to see Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey sign him to the history-making contract. (Dietz, who gets most facts right, fudges here: They met in 1945, and Rickey signed him then.)
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The play comes from Dan Gutman’s novel of the same name, the second in his 12-installment series “The Baseball Card Adventures.” Dietz packs a lot into his 90-minute one-act: Characters work out their feelings about race, Joey’s separated parents teeter on the brink of divorce, the show becomes an indirect homage to baseball itself, and Joey has to learn to control a hair-trigger temper. Time-travel always changes Joey, and he lands in 1947 as a black kid. By watching Robinson meet tormentors with patience and dignity, Joey learns to do the same.
Director Matthew Mazuroski and designer Tom Burch make auspicious CTC debuts with “Jackie.” Mazuroski stresses the characters’ reality and keeps them in almost constant motion around Burch’s set, which revolves to reveal new locales and allows furniture and props to move on and off swiftly.
Shepherd, who’s in his 20s, has a remarkable ability to convince us he’s a boy of indeterminate age – a young teen, at a guess – prone to the intense enthusiasms and disappointments of youth. Bobby Tyson projects warmth and dignity as Robinson, who’s never allowed to show much else.
Seven actors don multiple personalities smoothly, with David Sebren delivering especially memorable moments as an equipment manager obsessed with Commies, spies and aliens from outer space. Those were part of life in 1947, too.
‘Jackie & Me’
A time-traveling student from the present goes back to 1947 to watch Jackie Robinson become the first African-American in Major League Baseball.
WHEN: 3 p.m. March 7, 2 p.m. March 8, 7:30 p.m. March 13, 4 p.m. March 14, 2 p.m. March 15.
WHERE: ImaginOn, 300 E. Seventh St.
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
DETAILS: 704-973-2828 or ctcharlotte.org.