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Most people think of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson as the ever-smiling African American who tap danced with Shirley Temple in her 1930s films. But the man behind those smooth moves was more serious, reported Evanston native Ernest Perry Jr., who plays the dancer in “Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting” at Lookingglass Theatre.
The Ed Schmidt play takes place one week before the opening day of the 1947 baseball season. Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, plans to call up Jackie Robinson, making him the first black Major League ballplayer. The playwright imagines a behind-the-scenes meeting between ballplayer Robinson and three other prominent African Americans of that time — Bill Robinson, boxer Joe Louis and actor/activist Paul Robeson.
“He would be like two different people,” Perry said of the man he portrays in the show. “Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote the poem, ‘We Wear the Mask,’ and I think Bill Robinson exemplifies that. There’s certain things that he had to do in order to pave the way for other black entertainers. But that was an outside persona — that smiling, laughing, easygoing, getting along with everybody. But on the other side of that coin is a man who was strictly about business. He was a very strong black man, but at that time you had to mask that or else you ended up being some strange fruit hanging from some of these trees.”
Perry said “Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting” presents an accurate portrayal of his character as well as the other prominent black figures. “That’s the thing that kind of startles folks,” the actor said. “We come into a room. A white man, Branch Rickey, is in the room. We conduct ourselves in our different personas. And then as soon as leaves that room all pretense, all facades are dropped. We deal with each other like black men.”
That’s one of the powers of the piece. “Until [playwright] August Wilson, you really did not get to see how black men deal with each other,” Perry said. “You’ve got black men. They’re not killing each other. They’re sitting down having intellectual discussions. It’s something that’s not seen on the stage or on the screen, for that matter.”
Men with goals
Perry noted that all of the black characters in the play are “headed for the same goal but taking different avenues to achieve that goal.” The actor indicated that one truth of the play “hits me every night.” That’s when a character declares, regarding Jackie Robinson’s future in baseball, “If we don’t take advantage of this opportunity right now, we will never have it again as long as we live.”
This is Perry’s Lookingglass Theatre debut, but he has a long list of theater credits, including Goodman (where he has been a resident actor for 30 years), Victory Gardens, Northlight, Body Politic, Silk Road, Congo Square, Black Ensemble, Kuumba and City Lit. He has appeared at Actors Theatre of Louisville, Hartford Stage, Indiana Repertory, Cleveland Playhouse and many other regional theaters. His overseas credits include Abbey Theatre in Dublin and Vienna’s English Theatre.
Perry recalled a post-show discussion when he appeared in the 1997 Goodman Theatre production of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” “I can remember very vividly a black woman standing up and saying, ‘Thank you,’ with tears running down her cheeks. ‘I have never seen black men like this, discussing their lives.’ ”
The actor added, “Most people do not get to go backstage and see what it’s really like for a black man in this country.”
“Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting” gives audiences that rare opportunity.
Source: Highland Park New