Combining entertainment with historical education and moral instruction is always a tricky proposition, and doubly so when we are speaking of theatre for young audiences. As the Orlando REP's latest production proves, sometimes even the best artists can be led astray by the best of intentions.
Jackie and Me, scripted by Steven Dietz based on the children's book by Dan Gutman, stars 20-year old Michael Thibodeau (convincingly playing a young teen) as a Little Leaguer who is suspended from playing after responding violently to an abusive competitor's (a deliciously nasty Adam DelMedico) racist taunts. To research a school paper on black history, Thibodeau travels back in time to 1947, where he befriends Jackie Robinson (Clinton C.H. Harris, as noble and charismatic as Chadeick Boseman was in the recent biopic) and learns valuable life lessons about prejudice and anger management.
As with most of the REP's mountings, this is a handsome, polished production, with an efficient Ebbets Field-inspired set by Alvin DeLeon, well-chosen light and sound effects by Brandon Gauthier, and direction by Gary Cadwallader that largely emphasizes pace and humor (but watch for squirming seats during several slow talky sections in act one). I have no complaints about the cast, from Stephen Pugh's quietly compassionate Pee Wee Reese to Rod Cathey's gravelly impersonation of Harrison Ford's gravelly impersonation of Branch Rickey.
I can even forgive the logical potholes in the script, like Joey's divorced parents (Kevin Kelly and Wendy Starkland) simply accepting that their son can literally time-travel by looking at old baseball cards (this story apparently the second installment in a series, but the backstory isn't plausibly explained for newcomers); or the fact that several sections of dialogue seem to have been cribbed almost verbatim from the screenplay for 42; or even the outrageous equivalency drawn between being a modern-day Polish suburbanite and life as an inner-city black child during the Jim Crow era.
But what I can't abide by is the well-meaning but ultimately destructive ethical attitude that undermines the entire production. From the start, Joey is castigated and punished for defending himself against ethnic insults, while Robinson's supposed patience and self-restraint are held up as a model. Surely no one supports adolescents swinging baseball bats to solve playground disputes, but Joey's options are presented as a Hobson's choice between uncontrolled violence and meekly turning the other cheek. At no point do any of the adults observing the slurs Joey faces say or do anything to confront the tormenter; instead, they all tell Joey to just learn to ignore the epithets, rather than appropriately disciplining the instigator.
Ironically, the day after seeing the show -- which promotes submissive non-confrontation in the face of discrimination -- I received a replica of a 1958 letter sent from Jackie Robinson to President Eisenhower, stating in part:
"I was sitting in the audience at the Summit Meeing of Negro Leaders yesterday when you said we must have patience. On hearing you say this, I felt like standing up and saying, 'Oh no! Not again.'...17 million Negroes cannot do as you suggest and wait for the hearts of men to change...I respectfully suggest that you unwittingly crush the spirit of freedom in Negroes by constantly urging forbearance and give hope to those...who would take from us even those freedoms we now enjoy."
Jackie and Me's simplistic "sticks and stones" sermonizing may serve the agenda of school district administrators who are more interested in avoiding lawsuits from abusers' parents than providing justice for their vulnerable students. But the platitudes are dishonest to Jackie Robinson's true legacy, and a deceptively destructive message to be broadcasting to children, especially in light of a local bullied middle-schooler's recent suicide. I'd rather the REP teach kids to loudly, proudly stand up for themselves and others against any form of discrimination -- and that just because an adult tells them to quietly accept abuse, doesn't make it right.