This is an important play – which isn't to say that it's not entertaining and funny as well. It's just that Jackie & Me, playing at Seattle Children's Theatre, introduces the issue of racism in America in a way that's engaging to kids and offers up a powerful lesson about what African-Americans faced in the Jim Crow era.
I don't normally write reviews with teachers in mind, but this is a play to which every teacher should try to take their third-, fourth- and fifth-grade classes. Same goes for all you parents out there. The play is recommended for children ages 8 and up. I did take my 6-year-old along, and she thought the play was awesome; I'm fairly certain, though, that she didn't get all the subtleties of what was going on between the white and black characters on stage.
Jackie & Me is based on the book of the same title by Dan Gutman, one in his series of books about a kid named Joe Stoshack who can travel back in time using baseball cards. In this case, he travels back to 1947, Jackie Robinson's first year with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the year that Robinson broke the color line in professional baseball.
Joe goes back in time to do research for a Black History Month school assignment and ends up getting a glimpse of what it was like to be black in post-World War II New York. When he goes back in time, his skin darkens as well.
Robinson and his wife, Rachel, take Joe under their wings, giving him a couch to sleep on. When he gets a job as a ball boy, Joe gets to see firsthand the angry responses – from white players and fans alike – because a black man has been allowed onto the team.
Erwin E. A. Thomas is spectacular as Jackie Robinson. He conveys the physical presence of this amazing athlete, the pride and the struggle to control the anger he feels, as well as Robinson's easy-going charm.
In one of the most powerful scenes in the play, Robinson shares with Joey one of the threatening letters he gets every day. Joey, asked by Robinson to read the letter aloud, stumbles on the "N word," which is used once in this play. I knew this scene was coming – my 8-year-old's teacher had forwarded some background information about it – and I had prepared my children for it. I have to admit I was ambivalent about introducing them to a word that, frankly, they had never heard. Seattle Children's Theatre was quite thoughtful and intentional about including the "N word" here and worked with the Northwest African American Museum to make the scene into a "teachable moment." Without it, I don't think the play would have as meaningfully portrayed what Robinson faced.
My girls especially enjoyed the character of Flip (played by Peter Crook), the owner of the fan memorabilia store where Joe gets the baseball card he needs to travel back to 1947. He's a funny old crank of a Dodgers' fan (the real kind, not the L.A. kind) with a soft spot for Joe. And the adult David Goldstein does a very credible job of playing the kid Joe Stoshack.
Both of my girls agreed that you don't have to be a baseball fan to enjoy this play, although fans will get an extra measure of pleasure from seeing the story of a baseball legend.
Jackie & Me is the story of a civil rights and American hero. It's an instructive piece of social history and an engaging production that kept my squirmy 6-year-old riveted. It's well worth seeing for lots of different reasons.
IF YOU GO
Where: Seattle Children’s Theatre’s Charlotte Martin Theatre, 201 Thomas St, Seattle Center.
When: Through June 5, 2011. Selected Thursdays and all Fridays at 7 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. ASL-interpreted performance is Saturday, May 21 at 2 p.m.
Cost: Tickets are $17-$37. Discounts for groups of 10 or more are available by calling the group sales office at 206-859-4054.
Contact: 206-441-3322; www.sct.org.
Ruth Schubert is the managing editor of Seattle’s Child.