Layon Gray’s “All American Girls” had its formal press opening last night at the Actors Temple Theatre (339 W. 47th Street). “All American Girls” is the story of an all-Negro female baseball team whose coach goes missing in 1945 Chicago right as they are scheduled to play the storied (all-White) Rockford Peaches. Gray invokes an era in American history when women were called on to keep baseball alive as the men went off to fight in World War II. Gray, the show’s writer and director is an award winner with two shows running Off Broadway simultaneously.
I was pretty excited to check out this show. I am a huge baseball fan. In fact, I published several articles on the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, as well as the Negro Leagues. I interned at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and I just moved to New York from Chicago.
It is about time someone brought to light the indelible impact of the African American Woman in professional baseball. Effa Manley, owner of the Newark Eagles, is the only woman to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Toni Stone, who was signed to the Indianapolis Clowns (a men’s team), took over for none other than Hank Aaron when he was signed by the Boston (soon to be Milwaukee) Braves. Historians are quick to point out that she was actually better at the position than the future Hall of Famer. My point is that there are plenty of amazing true stories of African American Women in baseball. Why not tell them?
So, Gray opted to create a piece of historical fiction. That’s fine. It’s his prerogative. Nonetheless, the missing coach arc didn’t live up to the time period he worked so hard to place it in. It felt like an old episode of “The Twilight Zone” in skirts and cleats. I was far more interested in the girls’ internal stories (how they fought to get there, what was left behind, etc…) and most of those back stories ultimately went by the wayside.
One of my biggest pet peeves is historical accuracies. If you are going to create a piece of historical fiction, you at least need to get the history correct. It felt like research for this project didn’t go much beyond watching “A League of their Own.” The internal layout of Wrigley Field was non-existent. The geography of the city was wrong and the well-documented history of race relations in Chicago, known as one of the most segregated cities above the Mason-Dixon, was periphery at best.
The one exceptional strong point of the production was the cast. The actresses, who specifically played the girls on the roster, were for lack of a better word – great. In fact, they deserve credit for keeping me so engaged when the plot just frustrated me. Two standouts (if you had to choose) were Chantal Nchako and Yasha Jackson. Ms. Nchako was enthralling as Jonnetta. She precariously balanced the rage of oppressed generations before her with the need to keep her job. Ms. Jackson was also impressive as Sara, who must hide her panic as she does everything in her power to keep the secrets of her team in house.
If you are looking to learn about a piece of history that’s been cut from your school books, this is not the play for you. However, if you’re in the area, check out this roster of talented actresses. I’m sure it’s the not the last you’ll hear of them. http://www.allamericangirlsplay.com