A collaboration between the Columbus Children’s Theatre and the Short North Stage (which is providing a larger stage and production help), Jackie & Me revolves around an 11-year-old boy who travels back in time and witnesses how Jackie Robinson handled becoming the first African-American player in major-league baseball.
Based on a book by Dan Gutman, the two-act, two-hour play is recommended for ages 8 or older because it does not shy away from the racism and ugliness that Robinson endured.
“It’s a sophisticated exploration that should teach some life lessons for kids,” said director William Goldsmith. “It’s truthful and empowering.”
And powerful, cast members say. From their first reading of the script and throughout rehearsals, aspects of the play have resonated deeply with them.
Collin Grubbs plays Joey, a modern boy with anger issues who discovers that he has a magical power: When he holds a baseball card, he is transported back in time to the player’s era.
When he travels back to 1947, the year that Robinson became the first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Joey’s race changes from white to black, dramatically altering his perspective.
Grubbs, 11, said he had not heard about Robinson before he auditioned for the play.
“We’ve never had a black-history unit (in school),” said Grubbs, who attends Hilliard Station Sixth Grade Elementary.
It was eye-opening for him, then, as he read the script in which Robinson is taunted by fans and opposing players and managers.
In Philadelphia, Robinson watched as Phillies manager Ben Chapman had his players point their baseball bats at Robinson as if they were aiming rifles.
Robinson received death threats in the mail — against him; his wife, Rachel; and his infant son, Jackie Jr.
Of the racism in the script, Grubbs said: “I was just like, `Wow, that’s rough.’ Being Caucasian, I’ve never had any problems with that.”
Grubbs said that Joey learns to control his temper through watching Robinson as he handled adversity. On a personal level, Grubbs hopes that other students learn, as he did, about an important time and figure in American history.
Working on the play has been meaningful to Eric Qualls, who portrays Robinson.
Qualls, 38, called the experience “humbling.”
“These are my ancestors, and these are people who have taken a lot of painful things so I wouldn’t have to,” said Qualls, a Columbus native and first-year student at Capital University Law School. “I feel a great sense of pride, but that perspective humbles you.”
Performing his first role in 20 years, Qualls said he wants the audience to understand the pain that intolerance can cause. But he also thinks that people can benefit from listening to Robinson’s own words.
“There’s a line in (the play) from an actual speech he gave, where he said, `I believe in humanity,’ ” Qualls said.
“To me, he’s just an amazing human being who, in spite of some of the most brutal treatment, was able to see the good in humanity. All of us go through adversity, but he was able to come out of it with a positive outlook.”