The very first scene that playwright Bryan Harnetiaux wrote for his play National Pastime was also its most severe.
Although it’s often referred to in euphemistic shorthand as “the office scene,” the first-act finale depicts the real-life episode in which Branch Rickey, then club president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, met with a 26-year-old Black baseball player named Jackie Robinson.
Their 1945 meeting was about Robinson pursuing a Major League career outside the Negro leagues. Far from a simple contract negotiation, however, it was a move that would rupture what was known as the baseball color line, the de facto policy of segregation that had kept Black players relegated to a separate network of teams since the 1880s.
During the three-hour interview, Rickey deliberately subjected Robinson to dehumanizing, race-baiting invective.
“He didn’t know whether Robinson had the mettle to withstand what Rickey thought he was going to be up against, being put through the wringer by racism. It’s terrible. It’s ugly. But it is in my mind the profound truth of what Jackie was looking at having to face and in fact did face,” Harnetiaux says.
“So when I sat down to write this play, I said to myself in so many words, ‘If I can write the office scene, if I can do justice to what happened in that room between those two men in the privacy of that room, then I think I can write a play.'”
His drama about Robinson’s momentous Major League career ended up debuting at the Spokane Civic Theatre in 1998. And despite National Pastime having been revised and reworked quite a bit over the past quarter century, its most fraught scene has changed very little.
This weekend, nearly 76 years to the very day that Robinson broke the baseball color line, Harnetiaux’s play will start a brand-new run on the Civic’s main stage. Bay Area actor and director Kimberly Ridgeway is directing the cast of 13. Jackie Robinson is played by Trè Terry.
Terry admits that he vacillated over the script — not only because of the office scene but because he was eyeing film work and other projects. But after mulling it over, he saw National Pastime as “a great opportunity to hone my craft on a bigger scale.” The tense exchanges became, among other things, a chance for him to demonstrate “how important [Robinson] is to sports in general” and “the pioneer that he was.”
“When I went back and forth a little bit before I took on the role, it did have partially to do with the dialogue. Not in the sense of being uncomfortable with the dialogue but in the sense of receiving some of the dialogue. It can be heavy, especially being Black in Spokane. But then when I was thinking more about it, I realized why I had to do it even more because of being Black in Spokane,” he says.
For Terry, performing opposite Kim Berg as Branch Rickey has both heightened the intensity of National Pastime and softened some of its rawness.
“It was like an instant connection. As far as the relationship between Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson goes, the chemistry is definitely there. I tell [Kim] all the time during rehearsal, ‘Man, you’re killing this,'” says Terry, laughing.
“Because when you’re rehearsing these heavy moments, there’s times when you’re locked in and you’re just like, ‘That was a beautiful moment, but it couldn’t have been that beautiful without this other partner.'”
What most attracted Ridgeway to National Pastime is the power of those beautiful moments and the various relationships that underpin them.
“The more I learned about these individuals, the more invested I became in the story. Yes, this was a major change in baseball. It was a major change across the world. But the relationships that these individuals formed with one another are what really fascinated me,” she says.
“Just seeing the closeness between Robinson and Rickey are things I never knew prior to reading the script. We learn about baseball but rarely do we learn about the relationship Jackie had with his mother and with his wife. We might learn about Branch Rickey. Rarely do we hear about … the support he received from his wife.”
To bring those aspects to the fore, Ridgeway started discussing personalities and motivations with the cast very early on, even when they were still doing “enhanced table work” remotely via Zoom. She had — and continues to have — frank one-on-one discussions of her own with Harnetiaux to find the “justification” for certain events and phrasings in the script.
And in talking about her directorial priorities, she routinely comes back to two points of emphasis: “sensitivity” and “authenticity.”
“We’re not telling people things they don’t already know. Jackie Robinson was a great baseball player. He broke the color barrier with the help of Branch Rickey. He went into the Baseball Hall of Fame,” she says.
“What I’m interested in is, what are the stories between those major accomplishments where we can not only help you learn something but also be entertained?” ♦
National Pastime • April 14-23; Wed-Sat at 7:30 pm; Sun at 2 pm • $25 • Spokane Civic Theatre • 1020 N. Howard St. • spokanecivictheatre.com
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Article by E.J. Iannelli
Photograph by Ryan Wasson