Playwright: Ed Schmidt At: Lookingglass Theatre at the Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave. Phone: 312-337-0665. www.lookingglasstheatre.org; $27.50-$68. Runs through: Feb. 19
It's not easy being a "Famous First." The person daring to change the status quo is no longer an individual human being, but a representative of a tribal community, whether actual or conceptual. On April 10, 1947the opening day of baseball seasonBrooklyn Dodgers team member Jackie Robinson accepted the burden of being the first African-American athlete to play in a major league game. If this occurrence appears trivial to us today, consider that the U.S. military continued to be racially segregated until 1951.
This socially significant event didn't happen by accident. In Ed Schmidt's speculative play, Dodgers manager Branch Rickey convenes a secret conference at the Roosevelt Hotel, attended by the most famous celebrities of color of the timeheavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, Hollywood dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and actor/opera singer Paul Robesonto ask their support for his proposal. It's not an easy decision: Louis is restless and Robeson is contentious. All have bitter personal memories and current money problems. Some suspect that Rickey's motives may be as self-serving as they are lofty. They bicker, accuse, call each other names, throw furniture and commandeer the bellhop into abetting their petty intrigues. In the end, history takes its course, but the star of the moment has learned from his elders the difficulties of the road he will travel.
Since its 1991 production at the now-defunct Chicago Theatre Company, Schmidt's text has been trimmed to a swift 90 minutes, but the Lookingglass Company's staging at the Water Works sacrifices none of the intimacy so crucial to the dramatic tension. The spacious room may allow for a more kinetically varied stage picture, but the action is still essentially that of men huddled around a table deciding the future of their country.
This is ensemble acting at its most challenging, and the cast assembled by director J. Nicole Brooks keeps its eye on the ball to deliver line readings of riveting intensity and breathtaking eloquence. Anthony Fleming III endows Louis with sullen menace, contrasting with James Vincent Meredith's fiery portrayal (and startlingly accurate vocal impression) of the volatile Robeson. Ernest Perry Jr., delivers a deceptively effacing portrayal of the avuncular Bojangles, flanked by Javon Johnson's suitably hesitant Jackie, while Larry Neumann Jr. (as the calculating Rickey) and Kevin Douglas (as the young Clancy Hope) retain their dignity throughout to bring this too-long-ignored play to fulfillment.