By Richard Ades
This Black History Month is proving to be particularly educational.
The same week that the Jesse Owens biopic Race opened nationwide, Columbus Children’s Theatre opened Jackie & Me. Written by Steven Dietz and Dan Gutman, the drama is about a boy who time-travels back to 1947 just in time to see the legendary Jackie Robinson integrate baseball’s Major Leagues.
This may sound like science fiction, but it doesn’t come off that way because the time travel is simply a means to an end—the end being a chance to teach young viewers about a key event in African-Americans’ struggle for equal rights. The play also functions as an inspirational tale about how a young boy learns to deal with his own struggles by observing how Robinson deals with his.
Joey (Collin Grubbs) is a 10-year-old with one big passion—baseball. Unfortunately, he also has a hot temper that often gets him in trouble, including when he’s playing his favorite sport. Though the script doesn’t spell it out, the implication is that his anger stems from the fact that his parents (Jenna Lee Shively and Morgan Thomas Mills) recently separated.
Marital splits are a pretty mature topic for a play aimed at youngsters, and it’s not the only one tackled by Jackie & Me. The Polish-American Joey is taunted with ethnic slurs on the baseball diamond, and he faces even worse slurs when he travels back to 1947 and discovers, much to his surprise, that he’s been transformed into an African-American.
For viewers old enough to deal with the subject matter (CCT suggests a minimum age of 7), the play offers an important history lesson. Joey arrives in the office of Brooklyn Dodgers manager Branch Rickey (Brent Alan Burington) just in time to hear him offer Robinson (Eric Qualls) a spot on the previously all-white team. He then hangs around while Robinson deals with problems ranging from racist taunts to his own self-doubts.
Working under William Goldsmith’s direction, pretty much everyone in the cast gives a strong performance, including several actors who play multiple roles. However, the bulk of the dramatic load falls on the shoulders of 11-year-old Collin Grubbs, who meets the challenge with assurance. On opening night, his only problem was a tendency to race through his lines so fast that they were sometimes hard to catch.
As a matter of fact, the entire production might benefit from slowing down and taking a breath a little more often to let the emotions percolate. Despite all the amazing and frightful adventures Joey undergoes, we’re given time to feel neither amazement nor fear.
Truthfully, the script doesn’t help, keeping the characters one-dimensional and treating time travel as nothing special. Even Joey’s parents, who know of his era-hopping ability, send him off to 1947 as if they were dropping him off at the bus stop.
Making matters worse, a video sequence meant to symbolize Joey’s trek through time looks more like a trip through a body’s digestive system. On the other hand, Ray Zupp’s semi-realistic scenery and Brendan Michna’s expressive lighting serve the production well.
Despite the play’s dramatic limitations, Jackie & Me does fulfill its prime function. Namely, it gives young viewers a valuable history lesson while teaching them the importance of self-control. That makes it worthwhile family viewing.
Columbus Children’s Theatre will present Jackie & Me through Feb. 28 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 10 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Friday, 1 and 5 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$25, $15-$20 children, students and seniors; all tickets $12 on Thursday. 614-224-6672 or columbuschildrenstheatre.org.