With her slight form, her raspy voice, and her bouncy movements, April Matthis owns the stage. Playing the title character in Lydia R. Diamond’s Toni Stone, Matthis weaves effortlessly through space and time to reconstruct the story of the first woman to play professional baseball. The transitions are simple—”I’m a little girl,” Matthis will say to mark a flashback—while the rest of the cast fills in the supporting parts, alternating between a variety of players, owners, ticket-holders, prostitutes, and family members. Toni Stone is at its best, however, when Matthis takes center stage. She is endlessly watchable, narrating her own story with a peculiar literal-mindedness. For example, when a teammate tells her, “I wouldn’t throw you outta my bed for eating crackers,” she is bemused: “Why would I eat crackers in your bed? Why would anyone eat crackers in a bed?” Then, as if this has occurred to no one else, “They are very messy.”
Unfortunately, Diamond’s play does not make full use of its fascinating source material. Outside of Toni’s narration, the scenes are routine and predictable, often concluding with overwritten, summative monologues. In one, Diamond stages “coonin’ time,” a top-of-the-fifth routine in which the entire team acts out a theatrical approximation of a baseball game with frozen, minstrel smiles. The effect is devastating, and I was appalled to hear the audience laugh and applaud afterward. This would have been a fantastic moment to indict the viewer, to point out that in today’s theatrical landscape, a play like Toni Stone is still performed before majority-white audiences. The boundary between “coonin’ time” and, say, To Kill a Mockingbird may be less distinct than many of us would hope. In any case, this applause was followed by some remarks on how white people “think if it’s fun an’ have a certain elegance it ain’t serious.” Silence would have said more.
Early in the play, Toni introduces us to all her teammates. There are quite a few, and she assures us, “You don’t need to try to remember their names,” adding, “It matters that I tell you, though.” This, like Toni Stone as a whole, is an act of restorative history and undoubtedly an important one. But I do wish we had a stronger, bolder, and more original voice calling roll.