To unite strong personalities into a winning sports team, it takes an even stronger personality to rein in every one. This is the premise of Layon Gray’s mostly suspenseful new history play, All American Girls.
Gray, who also has a second play performing off-Broadway, Black Angels Over Tuskegee, illuminates some little-known American sports lore in this story about a 1945 black women’s baseball team.
He creates a compelling mystery around a fictional amateur exhibition team called the Red Diamonds.
Their coach has mysteriously disappeared, two weeks before they’re scheduled to play a million dollar baseball game against a white women’s team, the Rockford Peaches, on Wrigley Field in Chicago.
The story is told in flashbacks by the athletes, and narrated from the perspective of Laura, a newspaper intern.
Mari White radiates integrity and youthful spunk as Laura, who repeatedly stands up to the abrasive, dismissive white manager of the team, well-played by Steve Brustein.
Laura interviews the initially unhelpful ballplayers to learn what kind of relationships they had with Coach Hicks, and must puzzle out conflicting stories.
The casual racism of the era is mentioned throughout the play, along with an emphasis on teamwork, unity and loyalty — plus a genuine love of baseball.Tough Coach Hicks — an excellent portrayal by Arlene A. McGruder — constantly reminds them to practice hard and “keep focus.”
The ballplayers are all outstanding in their roles.
Each woman conveys a distinct, colorful personality, and despite very limited space on the small Actors Temple Theatre stage, they even manage to create a well-choreographed impression of several outdoor ball game practices.
One of the smallest players, team leader Ester, is given an outsize determination and spunk by Antoinette Robertson.
Catherine Peoples is very funny as the sassy catcher, Eddie, and Chantal Nchako is a dynamo as pitcher Jonnetta.
Settor Attipoe as brash Mattie, along with Yasha Jackson, Daphnee Duplaix and Ashley Jeffrey, round out the talented ensemble.
Gray tends to linger on melodramatic aspects in the final scenes, and love of baseball apparently trumps morality in some characters. Yet, for most of the play, wry humor and persuasive interactions are the focus.
All-American Girls may be more fiction than history, but these actors are so impressive that they deserve their turn at bat.
Actors’ Temple Theatre
339 West 47th St.
New York, NY.
Showtime: Wed: 8pm; Thurs: 7pm
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, 10 minute intermission
Tickets: $36.50 to $59.50
Info online: AllAmericanGirls
Jennifer Farrar covers Theater for the Associated Press