Children's Theater of Madison's production of Most Valuable Player wasn't sold out on opening night, but judging from the energy of the crowd, it might as well have been. On Saturday theatergoers of all ages and colors filled Overture Center's Playhouse to see the story of courageous Jackie Robinson, the first African-American Major League Baseball player.
The play moves through Robinson's life, from his early days growing up as one of the only African-American kids in an all-white neighborhood, to his athletic successes and struggles with racism in college, to his eventual rise as a baseball star. It moves quickly, running about 70 minutes with no intermission -- the perfect length for a show aimed at youth. The pacing -- which may seem too fast for adults -- seemed to sit well with younger audience members.
The cast is a tribute to the talent of Madison-area actors. Trevon Jackson captures Robinson's determination and rage. Sam White transforms fully into Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, Robinson's passionate mentor. White's portrayal clearly conveys Rickey's dedication to civil rights and his respect and fatherly love for Jackie. Also notable is Jaki-Terry. While she's convincing as Robinson's strict and supportive mom, it was her introduction to the show that I found especially moving.
Aiming for historical accuracy, the script calls for use of the word "nigger," and there are many moments in Most Valuable Player that show situations of extreme hatred. Jaki-Terry explained the use of the word eloquently to the audience before the show began. "This play is history," she said, reminding the audience that history can't be rewritten. It's wasn't an easy show for Children's Theater of Madison to take on, she acknowledged, expressing hope that the audience would take something away with them and help make the world a better place.
Jackie Robinson faced more than racial slurs when he broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. He had things thrown at him, couldn't eat alongside his teammates in restaurants, and had his life threatened. For these reasons, Most Valuable Player isn't always easy to watch, and I have no doubt that it wasn't easy for the actors to take on the malice and prejudice of the characters they were portraying.
Directed by Sheri Williams Pannell, Most Valuable Player has few faults. The show is professional yet intimate. The stage is well-used. Slow-motion sequences garner a few chuckles but are necessary to re-create the action of baseball games in such a small space. Recorded images and sound are used throughout, including some historical photos that help the audience connect with the reality of Robinson's story.
In short, Most Valuable Player is a success. It 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 throughout the show and offered the cast and crew a standing ovation at the end.