“A Tribute to Jackie Robinson, an American Hero” opened this past Saturday, February 19th at The Playhouse housed in Overton Center for the Arts, 201 State Street in Madison, Wisconsin.
Directed by Milwaukee’s own Sheri Williams Pannell, “Tribute” is sponsored by the Children’s Theater of Madison featuring the inspirational story of the first African American to play professional major league baseball.
“It was a perfect opening night,” says Pannell. “We had upwards of 325 people in attendance comprised of youth from the Madison area Boys & Girls Club, The Big Brothers & Sisters, a delegation of members from Milwaukee’s Calvary Baptist Church and families of various ethnicities.”
She would add that the “non-verbal responses” to the truths presented in the play and the laughter at the critical comical moments to additionally include the strong ovation “were very encouraging.”
Born in Cairo, Georgia on January 31, 1919 to a family of sharecroppers, Robinson was raised in Pasadena, California along with four other siblings. They were the only black family on their block and the prejudice that they encountered made their bond stronger. Robinson excelled early at all sports and learned to forge his own path in life.
He attended college at UCLA and became the first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports – baseball, basketball, football and track. In 1941, he was named to the All-American football team. He had to leave college due to financial difficulties.
Robinson eventually enlisted in the U.S. Army and after two years earned the rank of second lieutenant during World War II. Upon incidents of racial discrimination, his tour of duty was cut short with an honorable discharge.
He returned to the states hoping to become a physical education teacher, but he chose to play baseball with the Black Baseball League.
In 1947, Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey approached Robinson with an offer to join the Dodgers team.
On April 10 of that year, the Brooklyn team announced that it had purchased Robinson’s contract. A day later on April 11, 1947, Jackie Robinson began his career in the major leagues thus breaking the color barrier in baseball.
After nine years in the major leagues, many of which were riddled with the challenges of being Black in this era of segregation and “white-only” privileges, Robinson retired in 1956 with an outstanding career as a hitter, base stealer and fielder. He had been cited for being the Most Valuable Player in 1949, had played on one world championship team and had stolen home base 19 times, once during a World Series game.
A published February 20 review by Amelia Cook notes that the play “takes on history in a way that is honest and unafraid, and it did not fail to inspire the audience who, on opening night, cheered and applauded throughout the show and offered the cast and crew a standing ovation at the end.”
The Play to me is very important because it chronicles the story of a man who revolutionized not only civil rights, but American sports,” says Lorraine Terry who plays the role of Mollie Robinson, Jackie’s mother.
Regarding the use of the word “Nigger,” Terry said that “we have to play the story the way it is scripted because we do not have permission to rewrite history. It is our charge to learn from the lessons that Jackie Robinson left for us all and to make sure that we honor his memory.”
“I am honored to have been asked to direct this production,” says Pannell. “I admire this strong iconic figure of Robinson and what he means to both American history and African American history.”
She adds that many of our young people do not know the name “Jackie Robinson” and that is our responsibility and duty to rescue and reclaim these stories.
Pannell is a director, playwright and actor from Milwaukee. She has directed and co-directed thirteen productions to include “A Brother’s Goodbye” for the Milwaukee Chamber Theater, “Ain’t Misbehavin’’” at the Skylight Opera Theater, “Spitfire Grill” for the Old Lyric Repertory Theater, “In Darfur” for the United Nations and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “Milwaukee Stories” at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee, and “To Kill a Mocking Bird” at Sunset Playhouse.
Her original plays include “The Care Package,” “Harlem Nocturne,” and “Miss Williams” for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, “An Evening at Chez Bricktop’s” and “With Hand and Heart” commissioned by the Milwaukee Art Museum and “Baby Dearest” for the African American Children’s Theater.
A graduate of Spelman College and continuing with a Masters of Fine Arts degree in directing form the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she has served as an education artist for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Skylight Opera, Milwaukee Public Theater, the Children’s Theater of Madison and Milwaukee Repertory Theater.
To the question of what message would she like for the audience to reflect, Pannell says that “I would want the audience to walk away with a shared sense of pride and respect for Black men like Jackie Robinson being the first in your field to endure both the pain and victory of struggle.”
She adds that Robinson was at times called “The loneliest man in baseball” because he could not lodge, eat, or locker with his teammates in the segregated cities where they were booked to play.
“A Tribute to Jackie Robinson, An American Hero” runs through this Sunday, February 27. For ticket information, please call The Playhouse at (608) 258-4141.