‘CLEMENTE: THE LEGEND OF 21’
When: Through Sept. 14
Where: NightBlue Performing Arts company a stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont
Info: (773) 327-5252; http://www.Stage773.com
Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission
We know how Luis Caballero’s play “Clemente: The Legend of 21” will end. That is because this play with music — now in a hugely engaging production by Chicago’s NightBlue Performing Arts Company (in collaboration with the Artocarpus company of New York — begins with the funeral of Roberto Clemente. And even those unengaged in baseball history know of the legendary Puerto Rican baseball player who spent 18 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates (from 1955 through 1972), became the first Latino to win a World Series as a starter (in 1960), and was the first to receive both a National League MVP Award (1966) and a World Series MVP Award (1971).
Much like a character in a Greek tragedy, Clemente had a sense of foreboding about the arc of his own life. From childhood on, he had a fear of planes, and he died at the age of 38 when the plane he was on plummeted into the sea off the coast of Puerto Rico and was never recovered. He was on the flight as part of a charity mission to help victims of a massive earthquake in Nicaragua, and was using his presence to assure the aid would not be diverted by that country’s corrupt government.
But even when the play flashes back to Clemente’s youth — when his natural gifts for baseball were matched by a crazy passion for the game — Caballero’s play suggests this man had more than his share of dates with destiny.
Featuring a cast composed of Chicago actors as well as actors from an earlier incarnation of the show seen in New York and other cities, this bilingual production (with songs sung in Spanish and several scenes spoken in Spanish accompanied by projected English supertitles) has charm and warmth and much wonderful acting. Caballero’s script deftly leavens the sadness that permeates Clemente’s story with winning comedy, but it also has a strange hole in its core. Although he captures Clemente’s youthful ardor for baseball, any sense of the man’s love of the game during the two decades he spent playing it in the United States gets buried.
True, Clemente, who is winningly played by two actors (Jonathan Amaro as the high-energy boy and Modesto Lacen as the fiery, handsome adult), arrived in this country when segregation was still the order of the day. Unaccustomed to racism at home, he suffered profoundly from the discrimination, both overt and subtle, that he faced here on a regular basis — despite his celebrity and the cross-racial nature of his fans. The athlete’s limited command of English caused additional problems and misunderstandings, and a culturally ignorant press often exacerbated matters. So did the cold weather, back pain, exhaustion and eerie but abiding sense that his time was limited.
To be sure, there was joy in Clemente’s life. His loving parents (beautifully portrayed by Willie Denton and Xiomara Rodriguez) were simple, rural people who worked in the sugar cane fields but stressed the importance of education to their seven children. Roberto’s adoring older brother (played by the fleet Elvin Ramos in youth, and Carlos Miranda in adulthood) was his greatest fan.
As for Clemente’s greatest love, it was Vera Cristina Zabala (an exquisite, subtly wrenching performance by Lorraine Velez, who easily steals the show). Vera, a very proper, educated beauty he woos (awkwardly), wins and marries, adores him, though she is well aware of his demons.
Ricardo Puente provides great comic relief as multiple characters (although at times his accents obscure some of the dialogue). And there is fine work by Giselle Vaughn, Whitney Rappana, Casey Hayes, TJ Crawford and John Marshall Jr. as part of a cast that can break into Latin dance and song (fine work by musical director Aaron Benham and several choreographers) on a dime.
All in all, a deeply affecting work that, with a few tweaks, should assure it a long life.