Story of the man who brought Jackie Robinson to the bigs

In the one-man show "Branch: A Baseball Legend," Steve Hatzai portrays Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey.
In the one-man show "Branch: A Baseball Legend," Steve Hatzai portrays Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey.
Posted: February 07, 2012

Back in the day, when the Dodgers were in Brooklyn and baseball was an all-white game, Branch Rickey hired Jackie Robinson and changed American sports forever. That story - one that would seem a good idea for Black History Month - is the basis of Branch, now at Society Hill Playhouse. The show began with a startling and weirdly manipulative moment: The national anthem was played on a scratchy record, and everyone in the audience stood up.

Somewhere between a high school assembly speech, a pep talk, and a Wikipedia article, Branch by Walt Vail isn't really a play at all, and Steve Hatzai, an accomplished actor and playwright, struggles in this one-man show to theatricalize it. But it's a hopeless task. Director Barry Brait has him move a chair, roll up his sleeves, and tries - futilely - to coordinate his responses with awkward and excessive voice-overs (which occasionally dissolve irritatingly into mere static).

We are told that for 60 years major-league baseball was a segregated game, and that not only were there no African American players, no African American could buy a ticket to watch a game. There are all the expectable stories: hotels denying players a room, 16 major-league team owners signing a pact to ban "colored people" from baseball, and, once Branch Rickey hires Robinson, we then - on several separate occasions - have to listen to ugly racist invective shouted at him.

Not only is Robinson portrayed in Branch's anecdotes as a saint, but Branch himself, assuring us over and over again that he didn't hire Robinson to "change the world" - "I just wanted to win games" - is clearly self-congratulatory. Neither man emerges as a believable character and certainly neither seems to have been an interesting person.

The set (designed by Justin Baker) features an ancient phone, various pennants, and an umbrella stand with an umbrella and two baseball bats standing in it. Surely, a man whose life was baseball might find a better place for a bat.


Branch

Red Room Cabaret at Society Hill Playhouse, 507 S. Eighth St., through Feb. 26. Tickets: $25. www.societyhillplayhouse.org or 215-923-0210.


Follow Toby Zinman on Twitter at #philastage. Read her reviews at www.philly.com/phillystage.

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