Jackie Robinson has inspired an abundance of portrayals in popular culture, unsurprisingly. Examples include Blair Underwood in the 1996 HBO tv-movie Soul of the Game, Chadwick Boseman in the 2013 movie 42, and the man himself in the 1950 movie The Jackie Robinson Story.
In The First, a 1981 Broadway musical, David Alan Grier projected Robinson’s travails in breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947. Grier, later known for the 1990s sketch comedy television show In Living Color on FOX, received plaudits from theatre critics, along with the other cast members. Frank Rich of the New York Times noted, “The casting of all the principals is good. In his Broadway debut, Mr. Grier gives us an impassioned, strong-voiced and tough-minded Jackie Robinson—not an impression, but a real performance. Though the role of Rachel Robinson hardly exists in the script, the striking Lonette McKee manages to fill her with vitality and warmth. The sandpaper-voiced David Huddleston captures both the idealism and pragmatism, as well as the humor, of Branch Rickey.”
However, Rich was less laudatory of the play, which covered the same ground that 42 did three decades hence; it débuted on November 17, 1981 and closed less than a month later. Rich wrote, “While this show offers about five minutes of good baseball and a promising star in David Alan Grier, its back is broken by music, lyrics, book and direction that are the last word in dull.”
A lack of endorsement from the Gray Lady is to a Broadway show what a stake is to a vampire’s heart. The 1982 movie Author! Author! illustrates this point with bluntness wrapped in humor concerning the opening night of a Broadway play. Referencing theatre critic Stewart Klein of New York City’s WNEW-TV (later WNYW-TV), a character says, “Let me tell you. In this town, you don’t get a rave from the New York Times, you close. I don’t care if Klein was enthralled, enraptured, and reached orgasm. Without the New York Times, we’re dead.”
In my 2015 book Our Bums: The Brooklyn Dodgers in History, Memory and Popular Culture, McKee graciously shared her experience. “[Rachel Robinson] was so very warm, magnanimous and supportive during the entire process,” McKee said. “And I still believe that the play and any stories about Jackie Robins and other trailblazers are important for all of us. After all … how can we know who we are and where we’re going until we know where we’ve been and who the heroes were that paved the way for us. The Robinsons are important civil and human rights leaders.”
Noted baseball author Robert W. Creamer reviewed the play for Sports Illustrated, acknowledging that it “does an admirable job of presenting a momentous occasion in American sport and, for that matter, American history.”
Further, Creamer explained, “I saw The First two nights after it opened, after the derogatory reviews had appeared. I eavesdropped at intermission and after the final curtain, trying to find out what the audience thought. Repeatedly, I heard people say, almost with embarrassment, almost apologizing for being so gauche as to disagree with the critics, ‘I like it.’
“So do I.”
A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 31, 2016.
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