Playing the hero

“I was raised during an era of black power — ‘I’m black and I’m proud!’ … In Jackie’s younger years, he could have ended up with a rope around his neck if he’d [said] that.”

— Actor Edgar L. Davis

“We don’t serve niggers here,” the waitress snaps.

“That’s OK,” Jackie Robinson says with a laugh. “I don’t eat niggers.”

It’s an exchange between two actors, portraying what happened more than half-a-century before — yet you cringe as if the wound were new and raw.

What kind of courage does it take to laugh off hatred? A powerful, one-act play, Most Valuable Player: The Story of Jackie Robinson, attempts to answer that question, dramatizing how the baseball hero used many shields in his life-long battle for racial equality. Humor was but one of them.

The play by Mary Hall Surface shares co-billing with a down-home, Southern-style meal at the Sixth Annual Soul Food Dinner Theatre this Saturday night at the YMI Cultural Center, capping the local institution’s celebration of Black History Month.

On stage in the historic YMI building’s Roy Auditorium, Jackie Robinson is vigorously brought to life, along with several of his friends and enemies. The high ceilings, timber beams and gleaming wood floors of the renovated, century-old gymnasium create an acoustic wonder — the perfect setting for a play in which sound effects, such as original radio broadcasts and the cheering in stadiums, provide key theatrical elements.

Though students in Asheville schools are scheduled to see the touring version of Most Valuable Player for several weeks, public viewing of the production is, for now, limited. (For information on the show’s later run at the NCSC in late March, see the accompanying “Most Valuable Encore.”)

A play about an African-American sports hero is a natural fit for the YMI, says Rita Martin, its executive director.

A generation before Robinson was born, the YMI — the Young Men’s Institute — used to be the gym in Asheville where African-American workers “could enjoy themselves after working all day on construction of the Biltmore Estate,” Martin explains.

The building, commissioned by George Vanderbilt and designed by Richard Sharp Smith, was constructed in 1892. Years of renovation have made it an architecture-lover’s tourist destination, and landed it on the National Historic Landmark list.

History in the making

“When you see a skilled actor, in an intimate space like the YMI stage, inhabit such a role, it has great impact,” says NCSC co-founder Angie Flynn-McIver. “You can’t just say, ‘Oh, that happened back then’ — because it’s happening right in front of you, with an actual person. It’s a compelling experience that you don’t forget.”

In just one hour, Player manages to re-create the highlights of Robinson’s triumphs and struggles as the first African-American player in U.S. baseball’s modern major leagues, capturing the essence of the man and the times that shaped him.

The play’s five local actors had to stretch their limits to tell a story that made national headlines before they were even born.

“We did a lot of research,” confirms director Patricia Noyer. “[We had] to interpret the characters’ journeys not through our contemporary eyes, but through their eyes of the 1940s.”

For actor Edgar L. Davis, who portrays Robinson in the play, the part represents both a professional and personal journey.

“I never had to deal with what Jackie did,” he points out. “I was raised during an era of black power — ‘I’m black and I’m proud!’

“But in Jackie’s younger years,” Davis acknowledges, “he couldn’t [say] that — he could have ended up with a rope around his neck if he’d done that.”

As personalized by Davis’ mesmerizing performance, Robinson’s courage was largely defined by what he did not do. After one particularly nasty incident, the iconic ball player wrote his mother, “I found a restraint in myself I didn’t know I had.” He called on that self-control, day in day out, for more years than he would later claim he ever thought possible.

Says Davis: “What Robinson went through — the physical and mental torture … being punched, beat up, having garbage thrown at him … I don’t know how much I would have been able to hold back.”

The grandson of a slave, Robinson grew up in California, where his mother had moved him and his four siblings when their Georgia-sharecropper father abandoned them. Robinson was, across the board, an amazing athlete, a superstar with letters in four sports at UCLA.

But in 1940s America, young African-American men, though free to lose their lives for their country, weren’t allowed to play professional ball. It was a personal mission for Branch Ricky, then the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, to scale major-league baseball’s 60-year-old color barrier.

So he searched the Negro leagues for a stronger-than-average player — literally. Ricky wasn’t scouting for talent at this point, but for a man who had the physical and mental stamina it would take to endure the racial slurs and acts of hatred that would surely shadow him everywhere.

“Do you have the courage to take what they will give you?” Ricky asks Robinson in Most Valuable Player.

“I have the guts to fight back!” Robinson yells.

“I want you to have the guts not to fight back,” Ricky responds.

Thus started the “noble experiment” to integrate baseball.

Later, when other black players added their faces to team photos, Robinson eagerly passed the torch.

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