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These articles were excerpted from Tapestry, a weekly newsletter that examines the arts and entertainment world in Charlotte and North Carolina.

A forgotten baseball trailblazer takes centerstage in 'Toni Stone'

Toni_Stone.jpeg
Three Bone Theatre
Nashi Shandri plays the title role in "Toni Stone" at Three Bone Theatre through Sept. 3.

Baseball is filled with historical trailblazers. Think Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and the All-American Girls League from "A League of Their Own."

But the history books seem to have forgotten one important name in baseball history — Toni Stone. She was the first woman of any race to play pro baseball when she joined the Negro Leagues in 1953.

Her story is dramatized in the new play, "Toni Stone," written by Lydia R. Diamond. The play debuted in New York in 2019 and was billed by The New York Times as an unconventional love story between Stone and the game of baseball, bringing life to an historical character who many know little about.

The play now debuts in Charlotte at Three Bone Theatre under the lively direction of Dr. Corlis Hayes, with a cast led by Nasha Shandri in the title role, and a supporting ensemble of ten male actors, all Black, who play a variety of roles, including Stone's teammates; her husband, Alberga; and Stone's female friend and confidant Millie, who works as a prostitute at a brothel where the team stays when in town.

The play's lead actress joined WFAE's Nick de la Canal to talk about her character and what she hopes audiences will take away from the show.

Nick de la Canal: Do you think that Toni Stone is as well known as she should be?

Nasha Shandri: Oh of course not. Honestly, I didn't know who she was until I started auditioning for the piece. I grew up in the '90s, so around that time when the Negro Baseball League had become popular again, and still had not heard about her, so this story is definitely needed.

De la Canal: Okay, so let's talk about her. She grew up in Minnesota, moved to San Francisco where she played on several teams before she was signed on to the Indianapolis Clowns in 1953 as the first woman in pro baseball. Was that a big moment for her?

Shandri: Oh that was huge. That was one of her goals. That's what she wanted to do in life. She loved baseball more than — I would say — almost life itself. She lived and breathed baseball. It was her parents (who) tried to get her to participate in different sports. She excelled, and she always went back to baseball.

De la Canal: How did the members on her team react when she was signed on in 1953?

Shandri: Well, there are different accounts. Of course, it's sports, right? We're athletes. So there are only so many spots, so there's going to be competition. And then she was a female, but she held her own. She actually adopted her name, Toni, from being called "tomboy" all her life. So they would call her tomboy, and then when she went to San Francisco, that's when she changed her name to Toni.

De la Canal: What was her name when she was born?

Shandri: Marcenia.

De la Canal: Marcenia to Toni. How about that.

Shandri: Right?

De la Canal: What has it been like for you to learn about this character and then to get to play her on the stage? And are there certain aspects of her character that resonate with you?

Shandri: Her entire story. It's just one of those stories that resonates with, I think, any female today. Just to have a dream, to pursue it fully, and apologetically. So, Toni was Toni.

De la Canal: Is there any example of one scene, or maybe a relationship that Toni has with another character, that you find particularly enjoyable to perform?

Shandri: Her interaction actually with Millie. That was one of the female characters in the play, and you can see how their relationship evolved and how comfortable she felt with Millie as opposed with the other players.

De la Canal: What do you hope audiences will take away from the show, especially those who come maybe not knowing much about who Toni Stone was?

Shandri: Honestly, I hope they will dig a little deeper and they will try to find out more about her, her life, and her influence with the sport, baseball, and just women's history. I think it says a lot to women's history.

Tickets

Three Bone Theatre's "Toni Stone" plays at the Arts Factory at West End Studios on Aug. 19 - 21, 25 - 27, and Sept. 1 - 3.

Tickets range from $10 - $30.

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Nick de la Canal is a reporter for WFAE covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal