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Unicorn Theatre stages play about first woman to play baseball in Negro Leagues

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Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Actor Jaeda LaVonne practices throwing a baseball for the lead role in Unicorn Theatre's production "Toni Stone." The play is about the first woman to play in the Negro Leagues.

‘Toni Stone’ explores race, gender and the determination of the first of three woman to play in the Negro Leagues

Unicorn Theatre is taking a swing at the play “Toni Stone,” which is based on the life of the first woman to play baseball in the Negro Leagues. Stone, who played for Kansas City Monarchs for a short stint, was one of three women to appear in a Negro Leagues game. Stone is a featured character in the current hit Amazon series “A League of Their Own.”

The play, written by Lydia R. Diamond, is based on the book “Curveball” by Martha Ackmann, which focuses on Stone's life and devotion to the game of baseball. Ackmann said researching Stone’s career was harder than it should have been.

“It’s really a reflection of racism in that the Negro Leagues were not covered or thought to be important,” Ackmann told Up To Date’s Steve Kraske. To fill in the record, Ackmann interviewed former Negro Leagues players who competed with and against Stone. “I spent an awful lot of time in old guys’ garages and basements,” she said.

Actor Jaeda LaVonne, who plays Stone in the Unicorn Theatre’s production, did not know Stone’s story before she auditioned for the role. She said she relied on Ackmann’s book and trips to the Negro League Baseball Museum to prepare herself to step into Stone’s shoes.

baseball practice-65.jpg
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
The cast of "Toni Stone" takes a jog at a baseball practice to prepare for the show.

“My hope is that more people know her name,” said LaVonne. “I believe that you’re never really gone as long as people are saying your name, and so if I can be a vessel to carry her story, that to me is. . . then I’m doing my job,”

An exhibit at the Negro Leagues museum, “Beauty of the Game,” honors the three women who were allowed to play in the Negro Leagues — Stone, Connie Morgan and Mamie Johnson — as well as women who were influential leaders and executives in the sport. Negro Leagues museum President Bob Kendrick said visitors are often surprised to learn that women played professional baseball.

“This was really important to us to shine that light because as an institution, our goal is for people to walk away understanding the true value of diversity, equity and inclusion,” Kendrick said. “And it’s wrapped up inside this incredible story of these athletes who just simply wanted to play ball. Women have already played professional baseball and I think they will again.”

Stone faced a lot of barriers during her time as a professional player, many of which stemmed from racism and sexism. In addition to being harassed by fans and opposing players, Stone encountered harsh treatment from her own teammates.

Ackmann shared a story on Up To Date to give an example. She said on a tour in the South, Stone’s team stopped at a boarding house. Stone was the last person off the bus, and the owner the boarding house thought she was a prostitute. He directed her to a brothel where she stayed. None of her teammates stood up for her, and staying at brothels in the South became a common occurrence for Stone. The women there treated her well, and Ackmann said she stayed in several brothels in the South during her travels for games.

“She turned a real indignity into something that worked for her,” said Ackmann.

Kendrick said Stone’s story needs to be told.

“Her passion for the game gave her the will, the determination to keep pushing forward or to keep reaching,” he said. “What’s not to love about a story like that? It grabs you, it lifts your spirit to see someone who believes in themselves the way that Toni does.”

“Toni Stone” runs through September 25 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main Street, Kansas City, Missouri. Find tickets, showtimes and more here.

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When I host Up To Date each morning at 9 a.m., my aim is to engage the community in conversations about the Kansas City area’s challenges, hopes and opportunities. I try to ask the questions that listeners want answered about the day’s most pressing issues and provide a place for residents to engage directly with newsmakers. My email is steve@kcur.org.
Elizabeth Ruiz is a freelance producer for KCUR’s Up To Date. Contact her at elizabeth@kcur.org or on Twitter at @er_bentley_ruiz
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga is a freelance reporter for KCUR 89.3.
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