In 1997, 50 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in major league baseball, Spokane Civic Theatre Playwright-in-Residence, Bryan Harnetiaux, was working on a new play for Civic’s 1997 – 1998 Studio Theatre Season. In the midst of this work, he picked up, for casual reading, Arnold Rampersad’s Jackie Robinson: A Biography. This book “grabbed him by the throat.” As a playwright, lawyer and life-long baseball fan, he was stunned at how little he really knew about the story leading up to this iconic event in American history. With the blessing of then-executive director Jack Phillips, Bryan abandoned the current play-in-progress and began intensive research to determine whether Jackie Robinson’s epic journey could be brought to life on the stage. What he discovered was a compelling need to tell the story of how this seismic shift in American culture came about.
The play National Pastime — which is more about race than baseball — premiered in the Studio Theatre on April 18, 1998, and recounted how Jackie Robinson, together with Branch Rickey, the white President and General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, overcame the intransigent racist culture of major league baseball, this country’s “national pastime.”
As it turns out, this was only the beginning of the development of National Pastime, which was ultimately published by Playscripts, Inc. in 2009. During this 11 year span, the play was substantially revised, benefiting from several productions, including Spokane’s Onyx Theatre Troupe’s 2003 production, along with professional productions in Pasadena, California (Fremont Centre Theatre, 2005) and Stamford, Connecticut (Stamford Theatre Works, 2006).
This summer, in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s achievement, National Pastime returns to Spokane Civic Theatre for an 8 performance run on the Main Stage, directed by New York City-based director and professor Pat Golden.
“Hey, see when Branch signed Jackie to that contract, that was the beginning of the civil rights movement.” — Buck O’Neil