Month: May 2018

Lecture Review – “The Rise and Fall of the Negro Leagues” by Dr. Jonathan Mercantini

Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. Everyone knows that. What most people these days don’t know is just how remarkable a feat he achieved in doing so. Fortunately, historian Jonathan Mercantini is working to rectify this shortcoming.

According to Kean University’s website, Dr. Mercantini’s primary fields of expertise include Colonial and Revolutionary America, the American South and the state of New Jersey. He currently serves as the Chair of Kean University’s Department of History. When not occupied in that capacity, he’s a busy man. He is editing an on-line edition of the papers of John and Susan Kean. Tangential to that endeavor, he’s also involved with museum exhibits regarding the same family. In addition, he’s preparing an original piece for the New Jersey Historical Commission while co-authoring scripts for the documentary series It Happened Here – New Jersey.

But what has Dr. Mecantini done lately? Well, on May 8th, he delivered a lecture at the Moorestown Library titled “The Rise and Fall of the Negro Leagues.” The event concluded this season’s History Speaks Series sponsored by the Historical Society of Moorestown.

Dr. Mercantini opened his remarks by clearing up a popular misconception. Jackie Robinson wasn’t the first African-American to play professional baseball. Moses Fleetwood Walker played for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association in 1884. A few other African-American players followed him. Frank Grant played second base for the Buffalo Bisons of the International League from 1887 until 1888. Rube Foster pitched for the Chicago American Giants. That team played independently until 1920. At that time it joined the Negro National League: an organization Mr. Foster founded.

Segregation, Jim Crow laws and an unwritten agreement among baseball owners forced African-American baseball players out of the major leagues. Many did, however, play in places such as the Caribbean, Mexico and Cuba. From 1898 until 1946 they maintained their own baseball association in the United States.

Mr. Mercantini described the latter as a “precarious business model.” “The Negro Leagues” is a generic expression. It encompasses various organizations that formed and sometimes collapsed during the same season. This may be one reason why historians encounter difficulty when seeking primary sources on the topic.

The Negro Leagues included a number of characteristics that differentiated them from Major League Baseball. They developed their own version of the “Sunday Doubleheader.” Instead of the same teams playing two different games, these events featured two different ball clubs competing in each match up.

Teams engaged in “barnstorming.” This featured ball clubs travelling to different places to play the game. It allowed the fans to see players and teams they normally wouldn’t have had the opportunity to watch.

Dr. Mercantini compared the method of play to jazz. It featured an “aggressive, improvisational style of baseball.” Players such as Satchel Paige viewed the sport as a form of entertainment. On one occasion he instructed his outfielders not to take the field. “I’m going to strike ‘em out, anyway,” he told his team mates.

Jackie Robinson brought an aspect of this type of play to the majors. When he received the Rookie of the Year honor in 1947, he stole 26 bases. The player with the next highest total stole 14. Mr. Robinson also had a penchant for straight steals of home plate.

The East-West All-Star game served as the “showcase event” from 1933 through 1948. They drew better crowds than the ones Major League Baseball sponsored.

The peak era occurred from 1920 until 1950. During that period, baseball dominated American sports. From 1900 until 1947 they comprised the most successful African-American run business in the United States.

A revolutionary baseball innovation occurred in the Negro Leagues. In 1930 the Kansas City Monarchs became the first professional baseball team to play at night. The ball club owned its lighting system and transported it to other venues when they barnstormed.

New Jersey included a number of places where teams played. They were located in Newark, Patterson, Trenton and Atlantic City.

The Garden State also hosted the first integrated professional baseball game in the twentieth century. Prior to joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, Jackie Robinson played for their minor league affiliate, the Montreal Royals. In 1946, he made his debut on April 18, 1946 against the Jersey City Giants at Roosevelt Stadium.

Dr. Mercantini shared an interesting bit of trivia with the audience. To date, only one woman has been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Effa Manley received that honor for her work as the owner of New Jersey’s Newark Eagles from 1936 through 1948.

Perhaps inspired by the sports themed lecture, the Historical Society’s librarian decided to play the old “try and stump the historian” game. Stephanie Herz showed the speaker two photos of an African-American baseball club called the Moorestown Crescents. Both pictures dated from the nineteen teens.

Dr. Mercantini, himself a Moorestown resident, said that he’d never encountered any information regarding that organization. “I have homework!” He enthusiastically said. Let’s hope he uncovers some information and shares at a future History Speaks lecture.

Dr. Mercantini explained that due to baseball’s prominence in American culture, “Jackie Robinson could challenge white supremacy in a way no one else could.” Since its retirement by the league in 1997, his number 42 is now a fixture around Major League Baseball parks. Because of that it’s easy to forget about the struggle Jackie Robinson endured. Historians such as Dr. Mercantini and the enthusiastic history minded fans who listen to him are a promising sign that won’t occur.

 

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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Haddonfield Plays and Players

I never would’ve thought it possible to combine themes like desire, dishonesty and the use of alcohol in the same story. I guess that shows I need to get out more often. So it was ironic, really, that I discovered a play with these themes during a night out. I attended the opening night performance of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof directed by Bill C. Fikaris at Haddonfield Plays and Players  on May 11th.

Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece explored the dynamics between members of a Southern family. I found it interesting that Mr. Fikaris applied the ‘family’ premise to casting. The show included a pair of sisters (Shae Harris and Shani Harris), a brother and sister (Harper Carney and Quinn Carney), a father and daughter (Gary Werner and Gabrielle Werner) and a mother and son (Amanda Frederick and Wesley Frederick). I thought it nice to see a mom and her son sharing the stage over Mother’s Day weekend.

Bill Gates once said, “If you are born poor it’s not your mistake, but if you die poor it’s your mistake.” Maggie (played by Ashley Griffiths) came to this realization herself. Then she applied it in a way Mr. Gates wouldn’t have approved. She married Brick (played by Ken Hellings): a former football player and the potential heir to Big Daddy’s fortune. With the patriarch’s health in decline, only three potential obstacles could prevent her from achieving her dream. They included Big Daddy’s other son Gooper (played by Benjamin Morris) and his wife Mae (Amanda Frederick), Maggie’s and Brick’s childlessness and Brick’s alcoholism.

Ashley Griffiths played a stellar Maggie. The show opened with inscrutability regarding the nature of hers and Brick’s relationship. Ms. Griffiths’ performance kept the audience guessing. In the opening scene at hers and Brick’s bedroom, I thought her a lovelorn vixen hungry for her husband’s attention. In the course of their conversation she expressed an interest in having a child; quite an interesting statement after ridiculing her nieces and nephews for having “no necks.” This revelation combined with her seductive charms intensified the sense of mystery.

Ms. Griffiths delivered her lines in a heavy Southern drawl. Her accent sounded more realistic than native Mississippians talked the last time I visited there. She managed to capture the dialect inherent in Williams dialog while still speaking in a way that I could understand.

The performer showed great skill in crying during the show’s climax. I won’t give away spoilers, but when one knows the reason, the action made Ms. Griffiths’ artistic choice much more impactful.

Ken Hellings brought the role of Brick to the stage. The character harbored bitter feelings regarding the death of a friend combined with resentment towards his wife. While ostensibly blaming “mendacity” as the source of his alcoholism, he drank to drown the pain. He delivered the best line in the show about imbibing until he got the “click” in his head.

Mr. Hellings delivered a superb performance pairing Brick’s anger with his alcoholism. Bringing the latter to the stage could prove quite a challenge for any thespian. From the way Williams crafted the character, Brick drank so much that he was more in danger of drowning than suffering the effects of cirrhosis. This character very well may have consumed more alcohol than Dr. Sloper in The Heiress.

This performer balanced Brick’s drinking with his rage well. I flinched when he broke one of his crutches after swinging it at his wife. Even though his character always drank, he still delivered his lines in a way I could understand. I liked how the slur in his voice gradually increased as the show progressed. I thought his acerbic, “Yes, sir” whenever Big Daddy asked him a question a nice touch.

In sports, managers always talk about having depth on the bench. The same goes for theatre. Due to unexpected circumstances, the actor slated to play Big Daddy couldn’t perform. Producer Pat DeFusco did an extraordinary job stepping in to play this crucial role. His deep, gravelly voice suited the character. Had it not been for the rare occasions when he glanced at the script, I wouldn’t have suspected him a (literal) last moment replacement.

The matriarch of the Brody Royal Family of South Jersey Community Theatre, Tami Brody, played a splendid Big Mama. The role entailed a range of emotions. Ms. Brody expressed happiness and relief to dealing with loss and her vulture-like relatives. While delivering lines like an authentic Southerner, the performer animated the character’s travails perfectly.

Benjamin Morris (as Gooper) and Amanda Frederick (as Mae) played Big Daddy’s son and daughter-in-law. They played a couple, to say it politely, very interested in their family’s financial future. Ms. Frederick and Ms. Griffiths seemed to compete as to which could play a greedy character better. As with any occurrence of friendly competition between performers, the audience ended up on the winning side.

The confrontation scene at the end of Act II made for the highlight of this show. It featured all the main characters arguing over the disposition of Big Daddy’s fortune. Big Daddy’s entrance towards the end of the scene made this dispute even more awkward. The performers took advantage of the opportunity to bring out their respective characters’ flaws; with the exceptions of Ms. Brody and Mr. DeFusco. They both demonstrated the humanity in their roles. It made for a terrific contrast.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof featured marvelous atmospherics. I liked the color scheme on the set designed by Bill Fikaris and constructed by Glen Funkhouser. The background and the bedsheets appeared the color of the sky during a sunset. The blue lights behind the curtains made them the same hue as a cerulean sky.

When presenting a live performance, most directors focus on appealing to senses of sight and sound. Mr. Fikaris chose to add an applicable smell. During the show, Ms. Griffiths lit a cigarette, Mr. DeFusco puffed a cigar and Mr. Werner smoked a pipe. While I abhor the scent of tobacco (well, at least since I quit smoking) it helped bring me into the story. It made me feel like I sat, to borrow a line from Hamilton, “in the room where it happens.” That’s one of the benefits of attending live theatre that a person doesn’t experience at the movies.

One incident in the show made me a little nervous. Ms. Griffiths took up a bow and arrow. She then performed a quick demonstration on how to use it. This took place just a few feet in front of me. Whenever an actor takes up a weapon in my presence I worry. Are Haddonfield Plays and Players trying to send me a message?

Performers Philip Kehoe and Emma Scherz rounded out the cast.

“Mendacity” may have been one of the show’s themes, but I’m telling the truth when I write that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was phenomenal. Maggie asked a rhetorical question about how long a feline could remain on the top of a dwelling. While that inquiry remained unanswered, the show will stay on Haddonfield Plays and Players’ stage until May 26th.

Book Review – A World in Disarray by Richard Haass

Dr. Haass hit on a serendipitous trifecta with A World in Disarray. Talk about putting out the right book, at the right time with the right title. This tome delivered a brief yet trenchant analysis of international relations from the 1648 Peace of Westphalia through the present day. The author explored how the world progressed from the development of nation states to an era of globalization then reverted to a period of isolationism.

Unlike many works on foreign relations, I found this book rather lucid. The author expressed his ideas in plain language. Here’s his analysis of the modern era.

Populism and nationalism are on the rise. What we are witnessing is a widespread rejection of globalization and international involvement and, as a result, a questioning of long-standing postures and policies, from openness to trade to immigrants to a willingness to maintain alliances and overseas commitments. (Location 107)

It impressed me that the President of the Council on Foreign Relations could describe world affairs without resorting to jargon. It allowed me to focus on his ideas instead of struggling through a challenging vocabulary.

A World in Disarray contained many definitions. That allowed me to understand precisely what the author meant. I liked that Dr. Haass provided them even for common words.

Order is…a measure of the world’s condition. (Location 259)

’Legitimacy,’ defined by Kissinger to mean ‘international agreement about the workable arrangements and about the permissible aims and methods of foreign policy. (Location 307)

Terrorism often proves a challenging concept to define. There’s an adage that, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” The author provided an understandable description of terrorism. He used the one that emerged following the 9/11 attacks: “the intentional killing of innocent men, women and children by actors other than states for political purposes.” (Location 1355)

Many modern phenomena do not respect borders. Countries can affect each other in manners that previous generations never encountered. Technological advancements such as the internet and scourges such as ebola and climate change expand the scope of foreign policy. Dr. Haass used the book to advance a new approach towards it in the shadow of these threats. He called it “sovereign obligation.” He termed it as:

It is about a government’s obligations to other governments and through them to the citizens of other countries. (Loc 2498)

The author also provided examples of a poor approach to foreign policy. As Dr. Haass worked as the Director of Policy Planning at the State Department at the beginning of George W. Bush’s Presidency, I’ll use his thoughts regarding the goal of the Iraq War.

The motive that most captured the imaginations of the upper reaches of the George W. Bush administration, though, was a belief that a post-Saddam Iraq would become democratic, setting an example and a precedent that the other Arab states and Iran would have great difficulty resisting. (Location 1724)

I thought it interesting that at an earlier point in the book, he wrote:

Nearly three-quarters of a century later, Germany and Japan stand out as among the few successful examples of what today would be called regime change followed by nation or state building. (Location 441)

A World in Disarray provided a comprehensible and concise analysis of the globe’s current state and the events that led to it. George Santayana once wrote that those who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it. Let’s hope modern leaders study Dr. Haass’ work so they don’t repeat the present.

Carrie: The Musical at Burlington County Footlighters

Not for the first time, Burlington County Footlighters bewildered me. When I heard they’d present a musical about “Carrie”, I cringed. Who would want to see Theodore Dreiser’s 1900 novel Sister Carrie put to music? The answer is apparently no one.* Lucky for theatre fans the show they presented took its inspiration from the Stephen King novel of the same name. I guess I should read the marquee the next time I hear buzz about upcoming Footlighters’ productions.

Now the real question came to mind: would the theatrical production of King’s Carrie terrify me more than a melodic rendition of Dreiser’s prose? I found out when I attended the opening night performance on May 4th.

As the concept originated from the mind of the ‘master of horror’, it wasn’t a typical story of teen angst. Carrie White (played by Cynthia Reynolds) experienced torment from her peers at school. Her home life offered no succor. Her hyper-religious mother (played by Jillian Starr-Renbjor) sheltered her from the outside world. Mrs. White preferred to indoctrinate her daughter with religious thought. In fact she couldn’t utter a sentence unless it contained at least one passage from the Bible.

A repressed socially inept loner subject to incessant bullying: this would not end well, I thought.

And there’s more. Throughout the show Carrie discovered that she possessed telekinetic powers…and a pretty bad temper. I rubbed my hands together and anxiously anticipated a train wreck for the ages.

Connor Twigg both directed and choreographed this tale of teen tragedy. Carrie presented challenges on both accounts. It featured a host of sophisticated dance routines involving multiple performers. It also contained a touching story of an outcast struggling to find her place in the world. Mr. Twigg made an excellent choice in Cynthia Reynolds to take on the lead role.

Ms. Reynolds played the timid, frightened pariah exceptionally. She kept her face pointed down and spoke like someone afraid of letting the words out. Her voice still contained enough volume so the audience could hear her clearly. The mannerisms she chose helped to bring me into the story. She made me very interested to see how her character would behave as the abuse intensified. Ms. Reynolds’s non-verbal cues made me even antsier about the show’s conclusion. I knew it led to a good one.

Michael Gore crafted some unusual melodies for this show. Dean Pitchford’s lyrics didn’t make them any easier to sing. Ms. Reynolds’ character had the most challenging. She handled them like a true theatrical professional. She displayed extraordinary ability sustain notes and navigate the leaps.

One also has to credit Ms. Reynolds for what she’s willing to do for her art. Iggy Pop bled for his. Ms. Reynolds showed a lot of dedication to the craft. She took a bucket of fake blood on the top of her head for her own. From my vantage point, the substance appeared viscous like syrup.

Jillian Starr-Renbjor took on the role of Carrie’s mother, Margaret. Mrs. White possessed two personality traits: an overprotective attitude towards her daughter and religious zealotry. Ms. Starr-Renbjor delivered her lines with a calm, cryptic assuredness. Her performance made Margaret the most terrifying character in the show.

I smiled whenever her character took the stage. This show kept building to a climax my 20 times great-grandchildren would talk about.

I enjoyed how Ms. Starr-Renbjor brought an aspect of her own behavior to the role. She delivered some awesome vocal numbers. Her duets with Ms. Reynolds on “Stay Here Instead” and the minatory “I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance” made the show much more enjoyable. Ms. Starr-Renbjor’s solo number “When There’s No One” made the production remarkable.

Alix Vitarelli played the closest thing Carrie had to a friend as Sue Snell. Aside from her outstanding singing on tracks such as “Once You See” and superb chemistry with her love interest (played by Evan Brody) she played the most challenging role in the show to perfection.

Throughout Carrie, a spotlight (worked by community theatre legend DJ Hedgepath) would shine on Ms. Vitarelli. A voice would question her on the events leading up to prom night. The performer would tremble and nervously explain what occurred.

One scene transitioned from Ms. Vitarelli speaking in the spotlight to interacting with Mr. Stephens (played by John Romano Jr.) and Miss Gardner (played by Mackenzie Smith). She adjusted from playing an uneasy persona to someone having a normal conversation. That’s not an easy achievement with so little time to alter focus.

Ms. Vitarelli’s character also underwent the most internal change during the show. She started out as one of Carrie’s harassers and developed into an unselfish person with compassion. She portrayed this change very believably.

Danielle Janco played an exceptional villain in the role of Chris Hargenson. She also served as dance captain and co-choreographed the “You Shine” number with Mr. Twigg. As the choreography featured a lot of vitality, she did a marvelous job keeping up the dancers’ intensity until the final curtain.

Some time ago I described the Krier family as “the Royal Family of South Jersey Community Theatre.” Now, unlike a certain monarchy that’s been in the news lately, South Jersey community theatre has two royal families. Joining Tami and Taylor among the Brody family acting dynasty enter Evan.

Mr. Brody played Ms. Vitarelli’s love interest, Tommy Ross. The character also served as the object of Carrie’s affections. This development enhanced the build-up to the story’s end. I felt so glad I brushed my teeth before going to the theatre. My smile kept getting wider as the conflict built. I kept anticipating a nastier and nastier conclusion.

Mr. Brody delivered an emotional musical rendition of the character’s poem “Dreamer in Disguise.” He also interacted with a variety of types of characters. He played the dutiful boyfriend in his scenes with Ms. Vitarelli. He played ‘one of the guys’ when on-stage with his classmates. He became the empathetic friend when he performed with Ms. Reynolds. Like Ms. Vitarelli’s character, the one Mr. Brody played also experienced a change in his view of Carrie. He portrayed that transition convincingly.

Jim Frazer designed both the set and the lighting; the latter with the aid of Rebekah Macchione.  He combined the two for an eerie effect even before the show started. The illumination made the school gymnasium’s walls appear the color of blood. Yet again, I anticipated a show ending climax for the ages.

Then came the ending. The show contained a literal “blood bath” at the end. I preferred a figurative type. While reminiscent of Hamlet I found the conclusion a colossal disappointment. With all the conflict in the story combined with the themes of anger, cruelty and revenge I anticipated serious retribution at the end. The confrontation ended in mere seconds. I believed that Carrie’s enemies got off pretty easy. She allowed them to suffer exponentially less than the torture they inflicted on her would have warranted.

Aside from that one shortcoming, I found the show outstanding. To the cast I say: “you shine.” I’d also like to credit performers Joey Adams, Mackenzie Smith, John Romano, Jr., Brittany Petti, Shannon Forbes, Dannie Romanuski, Evan Hairston, Gavin Petersen and Luke Szyszkiewicz for their contributions to the production. I’d compliment Musical Director, Deborah Bergen and the live band, as well.

In my final assessment of Carrie: The Musical, I’d tell theatregoers “once you see it” at Burlington County Footlighters, you’ll have “a night we’ll never forget.” “The destruction” of this run occurs soon. You can add it to your “evening prayers”, but there’s no guarantee there will be an “epilogue” to the show’s schedule. So “when there’s no one” to go with you, “do me a favor” and go anyway. You may hope it would “stay here instead”, but you only have until May 19th to see it.

 

*Sister Carrie has been adapted into both a musical (1978) and an opera (2016). For the record neither received the same acclaim that Hamilton did.