One thing you quickly learn about theater is words matter.
Words formulate lines, lines formulate a scene and that scene, connected to other scenes and other words, helps formulate a story.
Mess up a word and you can mess up a story. That’s the only thing my day job as a senior reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer and my late-in-life attempt to act have in common.
For the past month, I have been part of the cast of the Springer Children’s Theater production of “Jackie & Me,” the story of a kid with special powers who goes back to 1947 when Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier and became the first black Major League ballplayer for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
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That kid, Joey Stoshack, is played brilliantly and very differently by homeschooled junior Tristan Hankins and Columbus High sophomore Benji Saxon as part of a dual-cast, 16-show run that started Wednesday morning in the McClure Theatre, known as “The Dot” and the more intimate of the Springer stages. The public showings are the next two weekends at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights, and 2 p.m. on Sundays. The other shows are being performed in the mornings for students throughout the Chattahoochee Valley.
Some of the words in the play are powerful — and even taboo in today’s world. But they matter in ways that draw a strong reaction.
The play is about conflict on many levels. You have the conflict presented by schoolyard bullies. The family conflict of divorce. And, the conflict that arises over race.
“You’re so ugly, when you look in the mirror it turns the other way,” the bully yells at Joey, the primary character.
It sets the tone.
“I can’t believe I have to work with a n----,” the clubhouse boy for the Dodgers says in a scene that is raw and pointed.
Throughout the play, the power of words as they pertain to race, bullying and divorce matter.
And that’s because words matter.
The beauty of this Springer Children’s Theatre Series production is that it touches the stage in a way that highlights all that the Springer does. The cast includes middle school actors who participate in the Springer Theatre Academy, high school students, Columbus State University theater majors, two professional actors with a lengthy list of credits and a professional director.
I fit none of those slots. I am the square peg trying to pry his way into a round hole. Sally Baker, the director of the Springer Theatre Academy, asked me to play a bit role, Flip Valentini, the baseball card shop guy that gives Joey the ticket back to 1947.
I don’t think either of us regret it. I know I don’t.
Two things have become obvious in the last month. First, producing a play is a serious time investment because of the layered process from the initial cast reading to the first performance. Second, it is a team sport at the highest level.
In this case, the professionals motivate and elevate the college students, who motivate and elevate the high school kids, who motivate and elevate the middle school students. That part has been fun to watch. Director Keith McCoy and actors Kendall Payne (Jackie Robinson) and Andy Harvey (Dodger owner Branch Rickey) are pros, and they approach their jobs in that manner.
And the kids are watching the pros work.
Harvey, who has played the lead role in such Springer productions as “Shrek” and “Les Misérables,” understands that.
“This is the first time I have ever done a show that combines children from an established academy with local high school students who are then connected with CSU students and the professionals,” Harvey said. “It is really special seeing everyone come to it and be together. I feel like iron sharpens iron. Each group is making the next one step up.”
One of the young actors who has caught my attention is Talen Hutchinson, a freshman at Calvary Christian School. Talen is playing one of the bullies and has to sell the audience that he is a jerk of the highest level.
The fact is, the kid’s anything but a jerk. He is fine young Christian man and would not say any of the things that come out of Bobby Fuller’s mouth when he’s in character. But Talen is playing the role in a convincing manner because he wants those kids in the audience who might be bullies or being bullied to see how bad it looks.
One day I joked with him that he had convinced me he was a jerk.
“That’s not me,” he said.
And that is the power of this production. A kid like Talen, and Columbus High freshman Will Haines who plays Fuller in the other cast, can take you into the dark side of a bully.
I have none of those acting skills. And that part has not been as much fun for me as trying to learn how to act, how to portray a character. It isn’t easy.
A week into the rehearsal, I had a bad day. Nothing came out right. I screwed up my lines and feared it had impacted Tristan in a negative way.
At that point, the thought was simple: Why am I doing this? Then the answer came from the mouth of a 16-year-old kid who knows he wants to be a professional actor and is working toward that end.
I told him I was sorry about botching my part.
“It’s OK,” Tristan said, patting me on the back. “We have all been there.”
Words matter. And these kids know that. They lift each other up, and when necessary, lift up the old guy — Tristan and Benji actually refer to me as that in the play. But that’s in their DNA and it’s in the DNA of the Theatre Academy, which was run for many years by my friend Ron Anderson, who died in August 2016 of cancer.
After botching my part that Sunday afternoon, I went to a quiet place and worked to get my lines down before the next run. I was pacing the lobby of “The Dot.” If I was going to be embarrassed by this, it was not going to be because of lack of effort and being unprepared. These kids were prepared and I owed them that much.
“So, you like ’dem Bums, huh?” I said, over and over. “That’s what everyone called them, ya know? The real Dodgers — not those thieving Hollywood hotshots out in Los Angeles. The real Trolley Dodgers, that played in Brooklyn, N.Y.”
Time and again I said that line. I have no idea how long I paced that lobby talking to myself, and no one in particular. I am sure it was a strange sight.
Then I looked up and realized the whole time I had been pacing in front of Ron’s portrait. At that moment, I did not know if I should laugh or cry. I just looked at Ron and doubled up my commitment to do it right. That’s what he would have told me to do over a cup of coffee at Iron Bank.
A few nights later, we moved out of the actor’s arena, which had been our practice area, and onto the set. As we were getting ready for the run, I noticed a sign taped to the wall: “Do your job well and treat people nicely.”
Those are the words of Caroline Garcia that Ron adopted as the unofficial motto of the Springer kids. And in the middle of a play that has some tough words, just seeing Caroline’s words right before you go on stage is comforting because words matter.
Harvey said he used the words to illustrate why he thinks the show will have a successful run.
“Everybody is doing their job well and doing it nicely,” Harvey said, “to paraphrase the motto around here.”
And that motto matters ... because words matter.