Jackie and Me breaks barriers
The newest Chicago Children’s Theatre prouction teaches kids about change through the legend Jackie Robinson.
Armed with a magic baseball card or not, traveling back in time to meet your hero is to most nothing more than a nice, unattainable dream. But in Jackie and Me, the Chicago Children’s Theatre–produced play about a boy (Tyler Ross) who meets the legendary Jackie Robinson (Kamal Angelo Bolden) as he breaks national color barriers in the major leagues in ’47, it’s every bit a reality. Building on the success of its 2007 adaptation of Dan Gutman’s novel Honus and Me, CCT has staged the next book in Gutman’s series, this one all about Jackie Robinson.
“In [the book], Joey is assigned to write a paper on Jackie Robinson, and finds himself wishing he could know what Jackie went through as far as discrimination and bigotry in America,” explains Gutman. “The only way to really experience that is to be an African-American yourself.” In Jackie and Me, the second of ten novels in Gutman’s Baseball Card Adventure Series, Joey actually becomes African-American when he joins the ’40s era Robinson. But in the play, it’s up to the audience to realize that Joey’s skin color has changed, responding to more subtle cues such as how teammates, fans and others in Jackie Robinson’s time react to Joey. “We don’t make him black,” says CCT’s artistic director Jacqui Russell. “The way [the audience] knows he is African-American is by the way people are treating him.”
Steven Dietz, the playwright who adapted the story for the stage, says his kids are to thank for inspiration. “My daughter is a huge baseball fan and has read every single book in the series,” he says. “Also, while I was first premiering Honus and Me, we adopted our son, Abraham, from Ethiopia, so suddenly [we] had an African-American baseball player in our midst.” For director Derrick Sanders, the subject also has family ties. His 20-month-old son has a grandpa who’s a retired athletic coach and a great-grandfather who played baseball in the Negro Leagues. “Kids don’t know how we got here and how far we’ve come,” he says. “Sometimes we forget about all the advantages we’ve got, the people that paid the price and how quickly America [became] an advocate for social change.”
As usual, the CCT extends its message beyond the stage. Throughout February, CCT is sponsoring an essay contest in which kids say how Jackie Robinson inspires them, with prizes such as tickets to Cubs and Sox games, signed copies of Gutman’s book and tickets to the show. But you don’t need to be a civil-rights buff or baseball fan to get motivated by the show. “It’s about something greater,” Russell says. “Hopefully, the audience will feel empowered to really look at others with more empathy and learn what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.”
Jackie and Me runs through March 27 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts.
Read our review of the show here.