Photo by Jenny Anderson.

Interview with Pam MacKinnon

"I believe in this play, I believe in this writer, I believe in the director, who happens to be me."

Toni Stone:

Interview with Pam MacKinnon

Ted Sod: Why did you want to direct Toni Stone, and what is the play about for you?

Pam MacKinnon: This project has been in my life for over six years. I was approached by an independent producer, Samantha Barrie, who used to work at Roundabout and had just optioned the biography Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone by Martha Ackmann. I devoured it. It’s about this amazing woman who knew what she was – a baseball player – and manifests that for herself in spite of her status in the world.

Toni Stone was a middle-class black American girl. She was the daughter of a barber in the Twin Cities, and she demanded that the world see her as a baseball player. She wound up being the first woman to play professional baseball at the tail end of the Negro Leagues. She played second base for the Indianapolis Clowns and had a career batting average of .256. This team was barnstorming in the Jim Crow South in the late 1940s and early 1950s. That was exactly when the “professional leagues,” aka the white leagues, were starting to integrate. Interestingly, when the white leagues started to integrate, the Indianapolis Clowns felt they needed a gate attraction, and Toni Stone as a woman player was a novelty. Some teams bought an elephant; the Indianapolis Clowns signed a woman.

The play is not just about one woman’s ambition. It deals with self-recognition and the work that goes into polishing raw talent with both force and charm. It’s also about racism in America – something that we as a country don’t talk about enough. This story hits that reality front and center, and that was very important to me. 

When you develop a project over such a long period of time, to finally get to do a full production feels so rich.

TS: How did you and Samantha decide that Lydia Diamond was the playwright to adapt Martha’s biography for the stage? Who else has been vital to the process of developing this work, and how has it been developed? 

PM: Six years ago, when we started this collaboration, Lydia Diamond’s play Stick Fly was being produced on Broadway. I also knew Lydia’s adaptation of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. We hadn’t worked together before. We knew each other socially and had mutual respect for each other’s work. When Samantha and I approached her, she said, “Let me read the book. I know nothing about baseball.” She, too, fell in love with this story. The first thing that she put down on the page was that amazing first monologue, which hasn’t changed in more than five years. It sets everything in motion. From there, we did workshop after workshop. Lydia did workshops on her own at Harvard because that is where Martha Ackmann works, and workshops were also held at Arena Stage in D.C., where the play will be produced later.

More recently with Roundabout, we started to work with actors in a room around a table over the course of a week. Lydia and I would discuss what we thought we wanted to have different by the end of the week. We would hear things and Lydia would go away, then we’d get new pages and we would hear it again.

About two years ago, we brought choreographer Camille A. Brown into the process to focus on physical elements. In the Negro Leagues, it wasn’t just that you had to be an athlete, there was also a fair amount of minstrelsy. Camille, Lydia, and I are in discussion about the tricks and the “cooning” that was part of it. We did one movement workshop, not with actors, but with dancers to generate some baseball-based movement.

Camille worked with a company of six dancers who she knew well. I attended the final day of the workshop and, at the end of it, I asked everyone to circle up and relate what they had felt over the days. A couple of people said they felt they had to toggle back and forth between absolute confident joy and oppression. We’re telling Toni’s story ostensibly 80 years after it happened. Camille, the choreographer, said, “Why is it that African American women have to work so goddamn hard to be recognized?”

When you develop a project over such a long period of time, to finally get to do a full production feels so rich. 

I’m hoping to put on the stage that these are two complementary misfits.

TS: As a director, how do you make suggestions to a writer about rewriting?

PM: I’ve been living with this text for a long time. You want to really dig into the writer’s intent. At the center of this play is a woman who is a force of nature, who knows certain things about herself. She is also completely naïve about other things when it comes to social behavior and love. She navigates a difficult world and ultimately does so really well. Lydia and I have discussed that it’s a big play on American themes.

A few weeks ago, we met for auditions, and afterward, we sat together in a small room and read act two aloud with each other. We talked about the points where it feels like it’s going into “plot points land” and questioned things. For example, when Alberga proposes, does he have to talk about it? Probably not. He can get down on one knee, there can be a movement gesture, and then we can segue into the next chapter of Toni’s life. We also talked about how we want to make sure that Toni and her husband have a rip-roaring fight. We don’t want her husband to be the one who gives her permission to go back and play baseball. So, we asked each other, “What is that scene?”

TS: How do you see Toni’s relationship with her husband Alberga at this point in your process?

PM: I think he just finds her really sexy. She’s independent, she’s an athlete. There’s this great black-and-white photo of them – I think it might have been in an early Ebony magazine – and he’s giving her a massage. He wasn’t a politician himself, but he told people who to vote for. He was a politico. In real life and in the play, he’s an exceptional man. He’s a compelling figure. I think he really believes in Toni. I’m hoping to put on the stage that these are two complementary misfits. He’s older and he has stature in the Fillmore district of San Francisco. Both Toni and Alberga were superstars in this African American and very important political district in the Bay Area around World War II. All of that is based on truth. 

TS: You have mentioned in an article I read that you are attracted to plays about people who are isolated. Is that true with this play?

PM: Absolutely. Toni is a woman on an all-male team. If you’re on a bus barnstorming through the Jim Crow South, where do you stay? The men can sleep on the bus, so the females wound up sleeping in brothels. In this play, Lydia has invented the character of Toni’s first female friend, Millie, a prostitute, who schools her in some of the finer ways to be a “girl.” Their relationship starts out with Millie being charmed by the fact that she is hosting this person who she’s heard a lot about, and ultimately they become very sisterly.  

The team keeps reinventing the world around Toni while she negotiates her way through it.

TS: Were there specific traits you were looking for in casting?

PM: This is an African American baseball play, so it’s nine African American actors including April Matthis, who plays Toni Stone. April is the only woman in the cast. The other eight male actors play members of the team, white men, black women, Alberga and Millie. The team keeps reinventing the world around Toni while she negotiates her way through it. In casting, I always look for a sense of humor. Lydia’s language on the page is deceptively hard. It’s really tricky for some actors, and for others it sits well in their mouths. There is a very particular Diamond-patois.

Over these years, with a lot of actors cycling into readings and workshops, we both know when they can and can’t do it. So one essential quality is, does the language actually fit in the actor’s mouth? The cast also has to be seemingly athletic. There are a lot of actors who’ve been with it for years and who will be in this company. It’s quite a mixture of NYC- and Chicago-based actors because that’s Lydia’s stomping ground.

TS: Have you worked with all of the designers in the past?

PM: Both Riccardo Hernandez, the set designer, and Dede Ayite, the costumer, are new to me, but I’ve been a big fan of their work. I really value that this is an African American story and, as a white woman, I don’t want the burden to be on my actors to teach me things. I also want my designers telling me what they think. I definitely wanted a diverse team. Both Allen Lee Hughes, the lighting designer, and Dede are black. I’ve done several projects with Allen, including Clybourne Park and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, so I wanted him to be with me on this one. In putting together a design team, I really love that combination of people I’ve worked with frequently as well as a few new people. I have worked with Broken Chord Designs a lot. They are a sound team made up of Aaron Meicht, who will do original music, Daniel Baker, who does sound effects, and Phillip Peglow, who works purely on the technical aspects. They work as an amazing team, and I’m so happy to work with them again after collaborating on The Parisian Woman, which was on Broadway last season.

TS: How has it been being the artistic director at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco?

PM: It has been incredibly exciting to me. With great help from my associate artistic director, Andy Donald, we put together the current season. We also just announced the coming season a few weeks ago. I’ve have a 25-year freelance career, but now I’m thinking in bigger terms, making artistic marriages by being able to invite directors that I have respect for. We’ve also already programmed Toni Stone for next season as a co-production with A.C.T. and Arena Stage, which I feel is the exciting power of an artistic director. I get to say, “I’m not waiting for a kiss on the forehead from reviewers. I believe in this play, I believe in this writer, I believe in the director, who happens to be me.” 

Toni Stone is now running through August 11th at the Laura Pels Theatre.