Jackie Robinson Enters the Cooperstown Hall of Fame, And Then…?


(Originally published in LA STAGE Times)

Playwright Brian Golden may have set his play Cooperstown on the day when Jackie Robinsonwas inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame,  but his inspiration came from a decidedly un-sentimental source.

Golden participated in a Chicago Dramatists workshop in early 2009 in which each playwright would write a play for five provided actors, he says. During one early class, Golden was chatting with one of the actors, Cecil Burroughs, whom he had previously met. When he realized that Burroughs was from Los Angeles and a Dodgers fan, Golden commented on his own admiration for Jackie Robinson. Burroughs’ response, however, was less than enthusiastic.

“It was something like, ‘Eh, what’s the big deal?’” Golden remembers. “Here was me, on some level, as a white guy trying to connect with an African American and being like, ‘Certainly we will share the same opinion on this crucial historical figure’ — and we couldn’t.”

Golden says now that it was “dumb of him” to assume that he and Burroughs would be able to connect over Jackie Robinson, but out of that interaction was born an idea to write a play examining why someone like Burroughs might feel indifferent toward Robinson, and how those feelings could be justified.

That play became Cooperstown, which premiered in December 2009 at Theatre Seven of Chicago, where Golden is managing artistic director. Cooperstown will make its West Coast debut with Road Theatre Company beginning Friday at the new NoHo Senior Arts Colony, directed by Darryl Johnson.

The play is set in a diner in Cooperstown, New York, in 1962, when Robinson is about to become the first black man to enter the Hall of Fame. The historic moment and other civil rights issues of the day underscore the trials of each of the five characters: Junior, the diner’s hardworking manager who can’t get a promotion; Sharree, his activist-leaning little sister; Dylan, a waitress obsessed with Bob Dylan; the diner owner’s wife Grace; and Huck, an Ohio minor league pitcher who comes into town for the induction ceremony.

Burroughs played Junior in the original Chicago production and will reprise the role for Road’s production.

Golden says Cooperstown is more of an exploration of the characters and how their lives are affected — or not affected — by Robinson’s achievement than a rigidly historical piece. As with many watershed moments in history, Robinson’s induction into the Hall of Fame may not have had as much of an immediate, positive influence on people’s lives as we might assume, Golden says.

“There’s certainly a historical moment that has happened but that doesn’t necessarily make Junior and Sharree’s lives any better,” Golden says. “Those things are really monumental and should be celebrated, but it’s kind of folly to think that, in itself, makes everything better.”

Johnson, the director, says he immediately connected to Golden’s writing style when Road company member Alexa Shoemaker gave him Cooperstown to potentially include in the company’s annual Summer Playwrights Festival.  The response to the staged reading ofCooperstown was so positive at the festival that it turned into a full-fledged production.

Although Johnson held an open casting after the reading, all five actors who performed the reading ended up keeping their roles for the play.

Cooperstown is “old-fashioned” storytelling, Johnson says, which he appreciates. “There’s just about every kind of love relationship in the story — a great brother-sister relationship, a budding young romance between two young people that are just cute as all get-out together, and then there’s a more bittersweet, deep love affair at the heart of it,” Johnson says. “Junior’s ultimate choice at the end of the day, with all the things he’s trying to do and all the ambitions he has, is ‘My place in the world is making sure my family is taken care of and that’s where I belong.’ I love that about it.”

The opening night of Cooperstown will mark the official gala opening of NoHo Senior Arts Colony’s new theater (although The Baby Project was the first professional production in the space, last February). Johnson excitedly points out the detail currently being put into Cooperstown’s set. A neon sign, jukebox and pastel-colored booths help to create an authentic ‘60s diner atmosphere, and the walls will soon be covered with baseball memorabilia. Johnson credits the design team, including set designer Desma Murphy, with bringing all the small details to life.

“By the time [Murphy] is done, I really think people are going to walk in here and ask for a menu,” Johnson says. “We want to brew coffee backstage so the room has a little of that scent of a diner when you walk in.”

Though Johnson and Golden have yet to meet in person, they’ve already bonded over baseball — Johnson is an Angels and Dodgers fan, Golden is a Reds fan — and Johnson thinks Golden will be pleased with the production when he comes to see it.

Johnson agrees that Cooperstown raises important questions about how much these great historical moments really affect people’s everyday lives. It also speaks to contemporary themes of race and the definition of family, he points out.

And it’s just a good story, told in a refreshingly simple and honest way, he adds.

“It’s just people with integrity,” he says. “Trying to figure it out and trying to work with each other and do their best.”

Cooperstown, The Road on Magnolia, NoHo Senior Arts Colony, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood, 91601. Opens tonight. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through July 20. Tickets $34. www.roadtheatre.org. 818-761-8838.

**All Cooperstown photos by Deverill Weekes.

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