‘Jackie and Me’ tells Robinson’s story in language kids can understand

Issues of civil rights, sportsman-like conduct, anger management and friendship are all important ideas and lessons for children (and adults), but how do you find a story that touches on all of them without a lecture?

Chicago Children’s Theatre has found the perfect story in its world premiere production of Jackie and Me, the story of a young man’s friendship with Jackie Robinson playing through March 27 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts.

Given an oral report assignment for Black History Month, Joey, the play’s young protagonist, uses his baseball card-induced time travel abilities to go back to the day in 1947 when Robinson became the first African American in the major leagues. Played with almost hyper intensity by Tyler Ross, Joey is a young baseball player with a really bad temper. Through his friendship with Jackie, Joey learns that it’s OK to feel mad – what’s important is what he does with that anger.

Director Derrick Sanders says the play’s honesty in dealing with these issues and its lessons about self-control and sacrifice were what drew him to the job. “Children’s theater tends to pull its punches sometimes, and I don’t think this show does that,” he says.[Read more from our interview with Sanders]

Kamal Angelo Bolden really embodies the heroic figure of Jackie Robinson. With great physical skill, he evoked Robinson mannerisms. With great heart and class, he faces the racism of opponent and teammates alike.

My sons and I were shocked by the language in the scene where Dodgers Manager Branch Rickey tests Robinson’s non-violent resolve with a slew of racist slander. I wondered if the language was too intense for kids in the audience, but I needn’t have worried. Later, my 10-year-old, who also read the book upon which the play is based, told me that the play version really made him understand what African Americans faced in that era.

Besides Joey and Jackie, dozens of other characters are played by six outstanding actors. Patrick De Nicolas does a great job as a bad guy in both eras. My sons loved laughing at him and rooting against him. Tracey N. Bonner also stands out for her grace and bravery as Jackie’s wife, Rachel.

Scenic Designer Ian Zywica has cleverly used movable flats to create all the play’s locations, including historic Ebbets Field. Enhanced by the theatre’s intimate surroundings the sets work to engage the audience in the play’s story.

Jackie and Me is recommended for audiences age 8 and older.

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