Older baseball fans have known the ability of a baseball card to whisk one back in time, even if only the previous season. But that time-traveling quality proves a key factor in helping a boy learn about courage, discipline and anger management.
A 1947 trading card for baseball legend Jackie Robinson drives the story behind the play “Jackie and Me,” which opens a four-performance run at the Waco Civic Theatre beginning Thursday.
The play, adapted from Dan Gutman’s 1999 book from his Baseball Card Adventures series, concerns 10-year-old Joe Stoshack (Zach Williams), a Little Leaguer with a little bit of an anger issue when his Polish heritage is insulted.
That’s not on his mind when he gets a Black History Month assignment at school. Consumed by baseball, he sees his ability to time-travel through baseball cards coming into play in taking him into the story of black ballplayer Jackie Robinson (Anthony Betters), who broke the color line in major league baseball.
The change in time isn’t the only switch that Stochack encounters: He sees himself as unchanged, but the others around him view him as a black 10-year-old. Director Tredessa Thomas found herself navigating time when she tried to explain the plot twist as a familiar one in the early 1990s television series “Quantum Leap.” There, actor Scott Bakula traveled to a new time period each week but was seen as a different person by people in that period.
“All my actors are too young to remember Scott Bakula,” bemoaned Thomas.
In watching Robinson handle the racism of his time — helped or hindered by fellow players and coaches Branch Rickey (Jack Rochelle), Pee Wee Reese (William Dubois), Leo Durocher (Greg Marx), Dixie Walker (Tyler Christensen) and Eddie Stankey (Brooks Indergard) for starters — Stoshack learns how to keep his own hot-headedness under control.
Their “Quantum Leap” ignorance notwithstanding, Thomas’ leads brought their own experience to their roles. For 25-year-old Betters, his years as a Midway High School outfielder and then two years as Baylor University cornerback (2011-13) grounded his performance as Robinson with an athlete’s appreciation of the work and discipline needed to succeed.
Where Robinson serves as an impromptu, and fictitious, mentor to Stoshack, Betters is a real-life one in his work as junior varsity coach for basketball, football and track at the Methodist Home.
The tables are turned somewhat when it comes to acting, though. Williams, whose character carries much of “Jackie and Me’s” story, has acting experience in such previous Waco Civic Theatre productions as “Miss Nelson Is Missing.”
The 2016 Baylor grad is the newbie, making his stage debut after former Midway teammate Tyler Christensen talked him into taking the part of Robinson, he said. Learning lines has been a challenge, but the former athlete is leaning on lessons learned in sports.
“You practice as much as you can and then you show up,” he said. “Opening night will be game time.”
Thomas said “Jackie and Me” contains some muted racial slurs, but that children fifth-grade and older should be able to handle the issues raised.