One of baseball’s greatest untold stories will soon hit the field at Nationals Park. On September 26, Arena Stage’s production of “Toni Stone,” the true story of the first woman to play professionally in a men’s baseball league, will be simulcast live from Arena’s Kreeger Theater to the stadium. The production, by the Roundabout Theatre Company, presented in association with the American Conservatory Theater, marks Arena Stage’s return to live theatre. The collaboration with Nationals Park has the potential to draw Arena Stage’s largest audience ever.
Arena Stage’s season opener breathes life into the story of baseball trailblazer Toni Stone. Stone became the first woman to play baseball in the Negro leagues when she was signed by the Indianapolis Clowns for their 1953 season. Stone played second base, replacing Hank Aaron after he was signed by the Milwaukee (now Atlanta) Braves. The play explores Stone’s many accomplishments and challenges as a Black woman in baseball.
“It’s a play about a woman who knew who she was,” director Pam MacKinnon says. “She was a baseball player and she pursued it unapologetically.”
Arena Stage’s production of “Toni Stone” is the culmination of a years-long collaboration between producer Samantha Barrie, playwright Lydia R. Diamond and MacKinnon. After reading Stone’s story in “Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone,” by Martha Ackmann, Barrie contacted the author for the rights to use the book as source material for a play.
Under the direction of MacKinnon, “Toni Stone” premiered in New York and went on to play at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. However, in San Francisco, the opening night was also the production’s closing night due to Covid-19 closures. Now, MacKinnon hopes the play will mark an uplifting reintroduction to live theatre at Arena.
“Coming out of this really devastating time, this is a really empowering story,” MacKinnon says.
With an almost year and a half long pause on live theatre, artistic director Molly Smith was looking for ways to bring Arena’s programming to new settings outside of the traditional theater. For “Toni Stone,” Nationals Park just made sense.
“She was a person who absolutely loved baseball,” Smith says. “Baseball was everything to her, so there’s this beautiful synergy of producing it at Nats Field.”
The atmospheres of an evening in the theatre and an afternoon at the ballpark are undoubtedly different, but Gregory McCarthy, senior vice president of community engagement for the Nationals, sees “Toni Stone” as a way to expose new audiences to both theatre and baseball.
“This is a way for us to interact with people who are followers of the arts, and the performing arts in particular, and maybe introduce them to baseball and our traditions in our sport,” McCarthy says. “Similarly, people who are baseball addicts are going to see a story of baseball unfold in a whole different milieu of performing arts telling a story I assure you most people don’t know.”
Arena Stage’s simulcast of “Toni Stone” could host as many as 12,000 people, about 20 times more than the capacity of Kreeger Theater. During the production, audiences will be able to purchase their favorite stadium food and drinks. Prior to the performance, the cast will make an in-person appearance at the stadium to introduce themselves and the play, then will be transported back to Kreeger Theater to perform for a live audience there. Smith anticipates the atmosphere in the stadium to be that of an event rather than a traditional performance.
MacKinnon believes that theatre and sports have more in common than initially meets the eye.
“We both rehearse, we call it rehearsal, it’s practice for athletes,” MacKinnon says. “Some people would say that a director is like a coach.”
With a nine-member cast, “Toni Stone” brings theatre and baseball even closer to reflect the number of players on the baseball field.
“A baseball fan ought to look at [Toni Stone’s] story and say, ‘You know, my sport is still evolving’ and as we grapple with these issues today, this is an important element in understanding how we are going to expand baseball in Black communities,” McCarthy says. “There’s a lot to be proud of in baseball history, but this is a way of seeing on stage the challenges and indignities that people had to endure to play the sport we all love.”
“Toni Stone” runs at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater from September 3 to October 3, with tickets ranging from $76-$95. Purchase tickets here. The September 26 simulcast to Nationals Park tickets are free. Register for your spot here.
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