A literary home run: Leverett author’s book is the basis for a Broadway play

  • Ackmann’s 2010 book, “Curveball,” has been turned into a Broadway play. Contributed phot0

  • Actors rehearse for Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of “Toni Stone,” adapted from Martha Ackmann’s book, “Curveball,” about baseball player Toni Stone. Contributed photo

  • A poster for “Toni Stone.” Acclaimed playwright Lydia R. Diamond adapted the work for the stage. Contributed photo/ Jenny Anderson

  • Director Pam MacKinnon (far right) works with (from left) Jonathan Burke, April Matthis and Daniel J Bryant for the Roundabout Theatre Company production. Contributed photo/ Jenny Anderson

  • Contributed photo/ Jenny Anderson—

  • Leverett author Martha Ackmann, recently retired from teaching at Mount Holyoke College, says she’s drawn to the stories of women “who are pushing the envelope in some way.” Contributed Photo/James Gehrt

For the Gazette
Published: 6/4/2019 12:09:27 PM

Many writers and performers dream of making their way to Broadway at some point in their careers. Martha Ackmann of Leverett had no such plan. Nevertheless, an adaptation of one of her books, “Curveball” (2010), is opening this month in New York.

The play, adapted from Ackmann’s book by award-winning playwright Lydia Diamond, is called “Toni Stone.” Stone (1921-1996) became the first female player in baseball’s Negro League, facing down formidable obstacles and breaking barriers as an African American and as a woman.

I sat down recently with Martha Ackmann, a longtime journalist and a Mount Holyoke College professor who recently retired from the college, to talk about Toni Stone, Broadway and Ackmann’s work in general. I asked how she happened upon Stone’s story.

“I knew I wanted to write a baseball book,” she explained. “I’m a sports fan, and I very much believe sports is a view into the nation. I knew baseball best. I was raised in a baseball family.... I had heard this phrase, ‘The woman who replaced Henry (Hank) Aaron.’ I started digging.”

She found the story of Toni Stone, who was brought into the Negro League in the late 1940s. As the major leagues began to integrate and talented players began leaving the Negro Leagues, African-American teams looked for gimmicks that would keep fans coming to the ballpark. A female player sounded like a clever marketing ploy.

According to Ackmann, Stone knew she was brought into professional baseball as a novelty, but she was a skilled athlete who loved the game. She played her heart out.

By the time Ackmann began looking into Stone’s story, she recalled, the pioneering player was dead. “I had to work really hard at the research,” she noted, pointing out that documents about the Negro Leagues don’t enjoy the same kind of archival collections as those from the major leagues.

“I had to find old guys who played with Toni,” said Ackmann, “and that was a delight. I spent a lot of time in garages and basements (across the country).”

“Curveball” was well received, but its author had no idea it would eventually become a play. But then chance intervened.

“I did a lot of media with ‘Curveball,’” Ackmann told me. “I had done a segment for ESPN. A theater producer, Samantha Barrie, is a sports fan, rabid about baseball. She had always been looking for a good story. One morning she was putting on her makeup, and her makeup mirror was positioned so she could watch ESPN.”

Hearing Martha Ackmann talk about Toni Stone inspired Barrie to get in touch with Ackmann’s agent, and the process of forming the play began. It took seven years for Barrie to assemble a team for the play and to arrange for the workshops that helped shape it.

Eventually, Barrie found a home for “Toni Stone” at the Roundabout Theatre Company, one of New York’s premiere theatrical repertory groups.

Previews for the play began in late May at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre on 46th Street, and the show, starring April Matthis as Toni Stone, officially opens June 20 and runs through Aug. 11. The play is written by Lydia R. Diamond, whose work includes an adaptation of the Toni Morrison novel “The Bluest Eye”; her honors include a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award.

When I spoke with Ackmann last month, she had just returned from sitting in on table readings of the play in New York. “It’s been just thrilling,” she said. “I was down there most of the week for rehearsals. They are so exciting … and so exhausting.”

She confessed that she had expected to serve merely as a witness but ended up being consulted by the cast and crew.

“Frequently, they were asking for some kind of context,” she elaborated. “ ‘Are we talking about exhibition games or are we talking about barnstorming? Did Toni ever want to have children?’ I was busier with answering than I thought I would be.”

She added that she was careful to recognize the contributions of Diamond, who has become a friend, and the hard work put in by the cast.

“I’m very conscious of realizing that it’s Lydia’s script. I want to give her a lot of respect and a lot of space,” said Ackmann. “When I left, I was saying goodbye to some of the actors and saying, ‘Boy, your work is hard.’ They said, ‘You haven’t seen it. Next week we have to stand up.’”

She says she’s delighted by the creative team, which includes a choreographer for movement (Camille A. Brown, recently nominated for a Tony Award). The producers have also added elements of music and jazz to the story, and Ackmann finds those additions delightful and appropriate.

“The Negro League ballplayers and the jazz musicians traveled the same circuit,” she said. “It was known as TOBA: ‘tough on Black asses.’ ”

Making changes

That said, Ackmann acknowledges that adaptations don’t always thrill the authors of the adapted works. “This is my first time, and I’m just a lucky duck,” she said, smiling. “Lydia can go places that I could not as a nonfiction writer. For example, in the Jim Crow South, Toni and the team could not stay just anywhere.

“It turned out that one time when Toni got off the bus, dead tired at night, the-boarding house proprietor took one look at her with 29 men and assumed she was a prostitute,” she added. “Toni was devastated. She ended up staying in a brothel, where she discovered, as she said, good girls who took care of her.”

There was no way, Ackmann notes, that she was going to be able to find that brothel to confirm the incident. “I told the story as it was told to me. I couldn’t go any further. In the play, Lydia [Diamond] has invented a character called Millie.”

The prostitute Millie becomes not only a vehicle for embellishing the story but develops into Stone’s first female friend, Ackmann explained. “That’s a whole area [of the play] that is very different from the book but that I think is very true to the spirit of the book.”

Ackmann is now retired from 30 years at Mount Holyoke, where she taught in the Women’s Studies Department. “It was a good round number,” she reflected. “I had a wonderful teaching career there and in particular wonderful students, but I’m very glad to return to my first love, which is writing.”

Her next book, “Vesuvius at Home,” is due out in February from W.W. Norton. It will focus on 10 days in the life of Emily Dickinson that changed the poet’s life. She’s also considering doing something on country music titan Dolly Parton, who will celebrate her 50th anniversary as a performer in October with a show at the Grand Old Opry in Nashville. 

Ackmann plans to attend the show, and she hopes to write a magazine article about the concert that could serve as a springboard for a book. “I want to take Dolly Parton seriously, and she hasn’t always been taken seriously,” she said.

Another adaptation of her nonfiction is also in the works. Actor Bradley Whitford has optioned Ackmann’s first book, 2003’s “The Mercury 13,” which explored a little-known 1961 program in which NASA tested a group of skilled American women with an eye to sending them into space.

Whitford, best known for his work on “The West Wing,” hopes to turn the women’s story into a television mini-series in conjunction with producer Amy Pascal. Ackmann reported that this project is in development and is “chugging along.”

It might seem to the casual reader that Ackmann’s subjects — would-be astronauts, a pioneering African-American baseball player, the Belle of Amherst, and a country-music legend from Tennessee — have little in common.

Not so, says the author. “I’m always telling a similar story. I’m always trying to get at ‘what is America’ through the lens of looking at women, women who are pushing the envelope in some way.”

For information about, and tickets to, “Toni Stone,” call 212-719-1300, or visit roundabouttheatre.org. Ticket prices range from $79 to $89.

Tinky Weisblat is a freelance writer and the author of a number of books, including “Love, Laughter and Rhubarb.” Her website is tinkycooks.com.

  




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