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Photo by Jenny Anderson .

Interview with Lydia Diamond

"The exciting creative challenge in writing Toni Stone..."

Toni Stone:

Interview with Lydia Diamond

Ted Sod: Is it true your family thought you would become a musician? When and how did you decide to become a playwright?

Lydia Diamond: I grew up in a family of educators and musicians. My mother was a musician, flute and piano. It was a given that you would study an instrument. I played violin for 11 years, horribly. In high school I finally, convincingly made the case that my creative development would be better served making theatre. 

I studied theatre at Northwestern and found playwriting in the beginning of my junior year. As an undergraduate, I wasn’t exposed to plays from the African Diaspora. I just didn’t know how limited the “canon” I was being introduced to was (keep in mind there was no Google then). So I wrote monologues to audition with, and eventually full-length plays and one-woman shows. Upon graduation, I acted professionally and was writing and producing my own plays. It took about 10 years, not until my first regional theatre production (The Gift Horse, produced by Chicago’s Goodman Theatre), to understand that I was happier and more adept at writing plays than being in them. 

TS: Did you have any teachers who had a profound impact on you?

LD: So many! At Northwestern I met Charles Smith (not to be confused with Chuck Smith, resident director at the Goodman and a dear friend and mentor). Not only was Prof. Smith a great teacher and writer, he was my only African American professor in the Theatre Department. Now I get emails from students who say, “I’m so grateful. You showed me that I’m a writer,” or “I auditioned for grad school with a monologue from your play.” It’s humbling and inspiring and why I teach (University of Illinois at Chicago).

TS: Your play Toni Stone was commissioned by Roundabout — correct? 

LD: In the mid 2000s, my life got overwhelming and my commissions stacked up, including one from Roundabout. Separately, Samantha Barrie, an independent producer, and Pam MacKinnon, the director, both avid baseball fans, had optioned a biography of Toni Stone by Martha Ackmann. They approached me to write a play about her. I was saying no to commissions at that time, but I couldn’t say no to this one. I was shocked that I hadn’t known of her, and felt that people should. We connected with Roundabout, and the commission they originally offered me became this play.

TS: How important was Martha’s book to your version of the story? 

LD: The book was everything. Martha has written the definitive biography of Toni Stone, Curveball. The depth and breadth of research she did to create that biography is mind-blowing. She spoke to so many people who were associated with the Negro Leagues. This play is not an adaptation of that book, but without Martha’s definitive biography, and generous championing of this project, there most certainly wouldn’t be a play. I didn’t really know baseball well; so that was scary. Martha, Pam, and Samantha’s unbridled enthusiasm for the sport was contagious. The exciting creative challenge in writing Toni Stone was finding the arc of the story that needed to be on the stage.  

TS: What would you say the play is about?

LD: First and foremost it’s about Toni Stone. This remarkable woman is such an important part of our history, and prior to Martha’s book, she wasn’t sufficiently recognized and celebrated. Toni had rigor and a singular focus. Baseball is what she wanted to play, and she made it happen. Despite Jim Crow, institutional racism, and sexism, Toni fought to play ball with a tenacious singular focus that didn’t leave room for being told what she couldn’t do. Ultimately, this is a story about perseverance and bravery and reaching for what you want.

TS: Are there characters in the play — like Alberga and Millie or some of the members of the team — who are your invention?

LD: Alberga, Toni’s husband, is not my invention, nor are many of the characters, though Millie, Toni’s best friend, is an invention, inspired by real relationships Toni did have with sex workers. When the team found themselves in towns without hotels for African Americans, women who worked in brothels would often put her up. So a character like Millie is not outside the realm of possibility. As far as creating the players on the team, I did do a lot of research. Starting of course with Martha’s book. The members of the team in the play are composites of sorts. There are two characters in my play who definitely existed and who I used aspects of: King Tut and Spec Bebop. King Tut was one of the most famous comedians in the Negro Leagues and Spec, who was a little person, was his sidekick. 

TS: Did the Negro Leagues overlap with Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier?

LD: The Negro Leagues preceded the integration of the white leagues. By the time Toni Stone began playing, the Major Leagues were just starting to integrate. During the Second World War, men were going to fight, and the white leagues were tapping the Negro Leagues for players. That made a little bit of room for Toni in the Negro Leagues, though she certainly got in on her own merit. She had been playing in male leagues for as long as she’d been playing baseball. 

TS: The Negro Leagues remind me of the Harlem Globetrotters.

LD:  Absolutely. There is not an institutional connection, but it’s very much in the same tradition. There was a piece of it that was a minstrel show. Keep in mind that some of these clubs were owned by black people, but mostly white men owned these teams. Just like the Globetrotters, there was a high level of athleticism and there was also a comedic performative element. The show acknowledges how problematic that tension was.

TS: I understand that April Matthis, who is playing Toni, is the only woman in the cast, and the rest of the actors will be playing everyone else, including white characters and women.

LD: The American theatre has finally started to address gender parity in earnest; still, we have such a long way to go. With this in mind, I labored over the decision to cast only one female and eight men. Ultimately I decided that Toni really was the only woman and that’s a stunning visual statement that I wanted. I fell in love with the image of this one Black woman surrounded by Black men. These men hold her up and support her in the telling of the story. I also love that the ensemble members play a multitude of characters, including women, children, and white people. 

TS: It will be fascinating to watch a man portray the tenderness between Millie and Toni.

LD: Kenn E. Head, who plays Millie, has been with us through many workshops. He’s a Chicago actor whose work I’ve admired forever. The relationship that Millie and Toni have is heartbreakingly beautiful. 

TS: How many workshops did you do?

LD: There were several at Roundabout. So grateful to Roundabout and to Samantha for making them happen. I was also able to do some development work at The Kinetic Arts Festival in Door County, WI, at The Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, Arena Stage, and Chicago Dramatists. I work best in the room with actors; that’s where I’m happiest and most inspired. 

TS: Do you anticipate rewriting once you see it in front of an audience? What motivates a rewrite for you?

LD: I’m rewriting now [two weeks prior to the first rehearsal] and probably will be until the morning of the first rehearsal. With every pass, I make connections that help tighten and streamline the storytelling. I’ll make changes through the rehearsal process. For at least the first two weeks in the room, new pages are rather abundant. Once in previews, I will be informed by how it plays in front of an audience and make small adjustments. 

TS: What do you look for when collaborating with a director on a new work? 

LD:  I have had the privilege of working with wonderful directors who begin with a respect and appreciation for the language. That’s so important. Arguably most important. Then of course there’s stewardship. Like Toni Stone, Pam MacKinnon is a badass, an elite athlete playing at the highest level. Pam’s rehearsal room is very much hers, and still she so generously and deftly invites collaboration. A big part of this process has been the work of Camille A. Brown, the choreographer, who is absolutely amazing. Pam has created an environment in which we all work in concert. She empowers people in a way that brings forth their best work. 

TS: Who are your favorite playwrights?

LD: There’s Shakespeare. And I mean that seriously. Before I ever knew I was a playwright, I liked reading Shakespeare out loud. It feels good in your mouth. The first African American playwright I was introduced to was Lorraine Hansberry, and that meant everything. For years I auditioned with Beneatha’s monologue from A Raisin in the Sun where she talks about the boy who was sledding and hurts himself and she realizes she wants to be a doctor. So many writers, peers, mentors, friends, who I’ve admired and have been inspired by: Lynn Nottage, Pearl Cleage, Paula Vogel, Dominique Morisseau, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, José Rivera, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Kia Corthron, Charles Smith, David Henry Hwang, Derrick Wolcott, J.T. Rogers, Kirsten Greenidge, Emily Mann. I really love Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out, which has the single most amazing monologue ever written about a baseball fan’s appreciation of the game. It’s an impossible list to make, there are so many others. I love playwrights and I love plays, and always behind me is a bevy of young brilliant writers I’m just not cool enough to know yet.

TS: Do you have any advice for a young person who says they want to write for the theatre?

LD: There’s the obvious piece of advice: WRITE. See everything, read everything, if you can, go to school, and write. Care little about outside affirmation and the size and import of the venue…care that you’re telling well-written stories that matter, entertain, and inspire. And have fun. What’s the point if we’re not having fun?

Toni Stone is now running through August 11th at The Laura Pell Theatre.