Of all the people connected with the Chicago Children’s Theatre’s upcoming premiere of “Jackie and Me,” director Derrick Sanders may have the closest connection to this story of Jackie Robinson breaking the baseball’s color barrier. His grandfather, Lanier Sanders, played in the Negro Leagues in Alabama back in the 1950s and his father was a high-school baseball coach.
So when the Chicago Children’s Theater asked him if he was interested in directing the project, he jumped at the chance.
“Before there was Martin Luther King and before there was Obama, there was Jackie Robinson,” Sanders says. “He was the first person to change, on a major scale, the way we live today.”
Sanders, a new father to 19-month-old Langston, says he wants his son to grow up knowing about the contributions of people like Robinson.
“There’s a wonderful legacy here and it’s important to keep that front and center,” he says.
Sanders started his directorial process by reading the book on which the play is based, a series by Dan Gutman that explores issues of race, tolerance and historical relevance through the eyes of Joe Stoscack, a junior-high student who travels back in time with the help of some magic baseball cards for a school project.
“I was surprised,” Sanders says of the books’ subject matter. “It really dealt with some hard issues and addressed them up front.”
The play doesn’t shy away from these tough questions either – “children’s theater tends to pull its punches sometimes, and I don’t think this show does that,” Sanders says – but it stays accessible to a broad audience. There’s enough baseball for kids who love the game, enough drama for older kids and, Sanders says, enough questions that will continue to fester long after kids have left the theater.
“This is about more than just race and history; it’s about the man, and how he handled his situation” he says. “That’s a powerful message and I think it will really stick with people. I know it stuck with me.”