Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing begins exactly where one would expect a play about a famous American baseball player to begin: on the baseball diamond.
Paige, played by Rob Karma Robinson, pitches to his buddy Buck O’Neil, a teammate of his on the Kansas City Monarchs. Another player, Art Young, joins them. Then, two white ballplayers walk onstage — Bob Feller and Frankie Palmieri. The weather gets stormy, a distant thunder claps, and in the seats of the Patricia Neal Stage of the Vineyard Playhouse, you can almost feel the mist in the air.
“The storm is the metaphor that will bring with it change in America,” said playwright and director Ricardo Khan. “We just don’t know what that’s going to do. We don’t know how wet we’re going to get, but we do know it’s coming.”
Mr. Khan’s play, co-written with Trey Ellis, aims to explore the culture of Kansas City in 1947, when the country was on the cusp of breaking color barriers. Jackie Robinson had just finished his first year in the major leagues, but the implications of that were still uncertain.
When Mr. Khan sat down to write Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing, it wasn’t going to be about Satchel Paige. He just wanted to present a snapshot of America during this formative time in history. He wanted to write about jazz and the Negro American League, two things that “have always been merged in history.”
But when Trey Ellis came on board as a writer, Satchel Paige entered the script. Mr. Ellis was intrigued by the idea of interracial barnstorms, where black baseball players would play white players in the offseason. In the late 1940s, Bob Feller assembled an all-star white team and asked Paige to gather the best black players for a barnstorming tour. The all-stars traveled throughout the country, competing against each other. Mr. Khan and Mr. Ellis agreed that having Feller and Paige’s teams compete in Kansas City would present the window into the story they were trying to tell, which moves far beyond race and athleticism.
Though the play is inspired by historical events, much of it is imagined. But, as Mr. Khan said, “That’s what plays are.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s fiction,” he added. “If you are inspired by the possibilities and you are knowledgeable of the times and some of the people of the times, then I think you’re free to imagine.”
The majority of the play takes place in a boarding house where the black players are staying. The thunderstorm in the opening scene prevents Feller and one of his players from getting back to the hotel where the white players stay, and so members of both teams are forced together by the elements. This sets up the play’s dramatic tension.
“Under the cloak of darkness, the night, and under the cloak of the rain we get to imagine what would happen if everybody had to stay the night together,” said Mr. Khan.
The owner of the boarding house, Mrs. Hopkins, along with her daughter Moira, have rich lives of their own as talented jazz singers. Mr. Khan said he included them as central characters to shed light on how integration was affecting black communities and neighborhoods that had always been separate by necessity.
Moira is trying to become a star in the jazz world. When her story intersects with the athletes’ stories, it illuminates an additional theme of the younger generation trying to rise up and achieve more than the generation before them.
Though the show at the Vineyard Playhouse is a full production, Mr. Khan said the play is still evolving. He and Mr. Ellis will keep tweaking the script until they are satisfied. The script has already undergone several revisions — character developments and plot tightening, mostly — since its first full production in Kansas City in 2012. According to Mr. Khan, every single scene has been changed in some way. As the play has travelled to various playhouses across the country, one of the main things that has remained constant is the lead actor. Mr. Robinson has played Satchel Paige every single time.
For the Vineyard run, Mr. Khan called upon several Vineyard talents, including Stan Strickland, who plays the Jazzman, a character who gives asides to the audience through music and speech, as well as Christopher Kann, who plays Bob Feller. Other Vineyard talents include choreographers Scott Barrow and Marla Blakey, costume designer Cynthia Bermudes and set designer Mac Young.
Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing has been performed on the Vineyard before, under a different name, though. There was a staged reading of the play at the Vineyard Playhouse in the summer of 2012 as part of the Playhouse’s Monday Night Specials. But Friday, August 15, marked its first full production on the Island — and in all of New England, too.
Mr. Khan said that although this summer’s Vineyard Playhouse performance is the best production of the play yet, there is still more to change and explore before the play travels to its next venue, wherever that may be.
The play will be performed at the Vineyard Playhouse until Sept. 6. Visit vineyardplayhouse.org for schedule and tickets.