Courage means knowing when to fight–and when not to. Jackie Robinson managed to show the world by showing up to play ball and standing strong and unbent, no matter what. The Indiana Repertory Theatre’s Jackie and Me uses the trope of time travel (via baseball cards, because of course) to show a surprisingly complex, sensitive, and thoughtful portrayal of race in 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball.
While many other depictions of race intended for kids shy away from the uglier aspects of racism, Jackie and Me tackles them head-on. It’s frank about the fact that Jackie, his wife, and their infant son received death threats. It shows that many of Robinson’s teammates did not want to play with him, threatening to leave the league altogether rather than play with a black man. It even addresses the “n” word with the seriousness it deserves.
But even with all that, the play isn’t all gloom and doom. It isn’t preachy. This is due in large part to Joseph Mervis’ effervescent, lively performance as time traveler Joey Stoshack. Some well-placed time traveler humor lightens the mood just when all seems lost. A great deal of credit goes to Jackie’s (Beethovan Oden) seething but constrained anger as Jackie Robinson. “I need a man who’s brave enough not to fight back,” said Branch Rickey, the manager to brought Robinson to the big leagues. Even when things seemed their most hopeless, Jackie knew that simply by showing up to work every day, he was fighting back. And that was enough.
The two are joined by a small but talented cast of supporting players who each play multiple roles. Joey’s mom (Jennifer Johansen) plays a small but important role, and gets the biggest laugh of the production, while Rob Johansen does important double-duty as both Flip, owner of Joey’s favorite baseball card shop, and PeeWee Reese, the Brooklyn Dodgers player who put his arm around Robinson in the face of death threats. Johansen cycles from broad humor to quiet strength at the drop of a hat, and does it well.
Jackie and Me is a smart, sensitive way to open the race conversation with kids 10 and older. No baseball knowledge is required; it’s just the backdrop for a larger and fascinating story about race, courage, and understanding. The 90-minute show is playing on the IRT Upper Stage now through February 16.