Time traveler meets man who broke baseball’s color barrier

By Richard Ades

This Black History Month is proving to be particularly educational.

The same week that the Jesse Owens biopic Race opened nationwide, Columbus Children’s Theatre opened Jackie & Me. Written by Steven Dietz and Dan Gutman, the drama is about a boy who time-travels back to 1947 just in time to see the legendary Jackie Robinson integrate baseball’s Major Leagues.

This may sound like science fiction, but it doesn’t come off that way because the time travel is simply a means to an end—the end being a chance to teach young viewers about a key event in African-Americans’ struggle for equal rights. The play also functions as an inspirational tale about how a young boy learns to deal with his own struggles by observing how Robinson deals with his.

Joey (Collin Grubbs) is a 10-year-old with one big passion—baseball. Unfortunately, he also has a hot temper that often gets him in trouble, including when he’s playing his favorite sport. Though the script doesn’t spell it out, the implication is that his anger stems from the fact that his parents (Jenna Lee Shively and Morgan Thomas Mills) recently separated.

Marital splits are a pretty mature topic for a play aimed at youngsters, and it’s not the only one tackled by Jackie & Me. The Polish-American Joey is taunted with ethnic slurs on the baseball diamond, and he faces even worse slurs when he travels back to 1947 and discovers, much to his surprise, that he’s been transformed into an African-American.

For viewers old enough to deal with the subject matter (CCT suggests a minimum age of 7), the play offers an important history lesson. Joey arrives in the office of Brooklyn Dodgers manager Branch Rickey (Brent Alan Burington) just in time to hear him offer Robinson (Eric Qualls) a spot on the previously all-white team. He then hangs around while Robinson deals with problems ranging from racist taunts to his own self-doubts.

Working under William Goldsmith’s direction, pretty much everyone in the cast gives a strong performance, including several actors who play multiple roles. However, the bulk of the dramatic load falls on the shoulders of 11-year-old Collin Grubbs, who meets the challenge with assurance. On opening night, his only problem was a tendency to race through his lines so fast that they were sometimes hard to catch.

As a matter of fact, the entire production might benefit from slowing down and taking a breath a little more often to let the emotions percolate. Despite all the amazing and frightful adventures Joey undergoes, we’re given time to feel neither amazement nor fear.

Truthfully, the script doesn’t help, keeping the characters one-dimensional and treating time travel as nothing special. Even Joey’s parents, who know of his era-hopping ability, send him off to 1947 as if they were dropping him off at the bus stop.

Making matters worse, a video sequence meant to symbolize Joey’s trek through time looks more like a trip through a body’s digestive system. On the other hand, Ray Zupp’s semi-realistic scenery and Brendan Michna’s expressive lighting serve the production well.

Despite the play’s dramatic limitations, Jackie & Me does fulfill its prime function. Namely, it gives young viewers a valuable history lesson while teaching them the importance of self-control. That makes it worthwhile family viewing.

Columbus Children’s Theatre will present Jackie & Me through Feb. 28 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 10 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Friday, 1 and 5 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$25, $15-$20 children, students and seniors; all tickets $12 on Thursday. 614-224-6672 or columbuschildrenstheatre.org.

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Annual theater celebration features awards, speeches, songs

Matt Clemens (seen sharing a scene with Laura Griffith) received a Theatre Roundtable award for his leading role in Short North Stage's production of Sunday in the Park With George (photo by Megan Leigh)
Matt Clemens (seen sharing a scene with Laura Griffith) received a Theatre Roundtable award for his leading role in Short North Stage’s production of Sunday in the Park With George (photo by Megan Leigh)

By Richard Ades

It’s all over but the Facebook posts.

The Central Ohio Theatre Roundtable held its annual awards night Sunday at the Jewish Community Center. As in the past, the fast-paced show punctuated its presentations and speeches with songs from some of the past year’s musical productions.

The treats included Matt Clemens’s emotional rendition of Finishing the Hat from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George. The number provided proof that Clemens richly deserved the award the Roundtable gave him for his leading role in the Short North Stage production.

One of the night’s most heartwarming moments came when the Central Ohio Theatre Critics Circle—representing local print, on-air and online critics—presented a citation to Short North Stage for that same production. When troupe co-founders Rich Gore and Peter Yockel came onstage to accept the award, Yockel found himself getting a little choked up. That prompted Gore to observe that he hadn’t seen his partner tear up like that since their recent wedding day.

In a conversation prior to the show, the two recalled that they were just one of many same-sex couples who’d headed to New York and queued up to get hitched in a civil ceremony on Halloween. But they stood out from the crowd, they noted, being one of the few pairs who hadn’t turned up in Halloween costumes.

Two troupes received the Roundtable’s Harold Awards for, essentially, persevering: Columbus Children’s Theatre for turning 50 and Shadowbox Live for turning 25 (as measured from the appearance of Stev Guyer and company’s earliest “rock operas”). Accepting his Harold, Guyer explained why he and his cohorts had stuck it out in a profession that kept them working longer-than-average hours for lower-than-average pay.

“It’s a calling,” he said. “It’s what you do.”

Guyer also praised Columbus theatergoers who were willing to take a chance on unknown productions—such as most of those presented by Shadowbox.

For a list of other Theatre Roundtable nominees and winners, visit www.theatre-roundtable.org/trnominations/. For a list of the Central Ohio Theatre Critics Circle’s 20th annual round of citations, which were presented at Sunday’s event, see below:

▪ To CATCO and the Columbus Museum of Art, for educating Central Ohio about the power of art and the creative challenges of artists by jointly scheduling CATCO’s area premiere of Red, John Logan’s 2010 Tony winner for best play about Rothko at a pivotal point in his career, and “Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade,” the museum’s first major exhibit of works by the abstract master.

▪ To Short North Stage, for raising the standard in locally produced musicals with an ambitious 2013 season that culminated in the long-awaited Central Ohio premiere of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park With George, a challenging 1985 Pulitzer Prize winner that was brought to vivid life by blending local talents with such New York experts as sound designer Leon Rothenberg, a 2013 Tony Award winner, and director Sarna Lapine, niece of James Lapine.

▪ A Roy Bowen Lifetime Achievement Award to William Goldsmith for nurturing the talents and imaginations of tens of thousands of children and for writing and directing many popular stage adaptations of classic tales as youth theater director at Players Theatre Columbus in the 1970s and ’80s and, for 25 years since 1989, as artistic director of Columbus Children’s Theatre, a troupe that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013.