Before Lydia R. Diamond was commissioned to write a play about Toni Stone, the playwright had never heard of her. Stone, who made history in 1953 when she joined the Negro Leagues, was the first woman ever to play professionally in a men’s baseball league. Despite having every card stacked against her, Stone’s talent propelled her all the way to Yankee stadium. Diamond was confused—why wasn’t she a household name?
And so, with the support of Roundabout Theatre Company, producer Samantha Barrie, and director Pam MacKinnon, Diamond brings Stone’s legendary life to the Off-Broadway stage this month with Obie winner April Matthis in the title role.
For Diamond, writing and working on Toni Stone has been an opportunity to bring Stone’s life to a wider audience. “She’s a historical figure that we should know, just like we know any of the major baseball players,” says Diamond. “This story has to be told and I’m so grateful to be the one to tell it.”
Her take on Stone’s life is an excitingly theatrical glimpse at the world of baseball. A bullpen of players tackles roles across age, race, and gender to embody the thrill of the game onstage (choreographed by Tony Award nominee Camille A. Brown). It’s also about a black woman who worked to make room for herself in spaces where she wasn’t initially welcome.
“Throughout her life, she had a singular focus. That was to play baseball. To play well and to play aggressively,” says Diamond. “I was attracted to the story of somebody who had the passion, the drive, and the rigor to do what they had to do in the face of whatever obstacles. For Toni, it was never about surmounting obstacles, it was just about playing baseball. I find that incredibly inspiring.”
Inherent to Stone’s story is the sexism and racism she faced in the pursuit of her dreams. These are woven throughout the play, not in an attempt to make Toni Stone more relevant or political, but because it would be impossible to recount her life without it.
“It’s a part of our American story. There’s no telling of the Toni Stone story that doesn’t acknowledge that she was doing it at a time when there was still Jim Crow,” explains Diamond. “They would play exhibition games against white teams and worry about getting beat up for winning.
“It’s interesting when people ask me about the political and the personal,” she continues. “For an African-American woman in America now…they’re intrinsically bound. There’s no separating [the two].”