I've written books, movies and TV shows since I was in my twenties but
came to writing plays relatively recently. So to be here today with two plays running in the country at the same time is an extraordinary honor. My first play, Fly, was first commissioned by the Lincoln Center Institute in 2007, and has become the most successful theater piece in their history. It has gone on to sold-out runs around the country including last year at the historic Ford's Theater in D.C., just closed at the Cincinnati Playhouse and just opened at the St. Louis Rep.
A few years later my brilliant theatrical collaborator, veteran director Ricardo Khan, approached me to write another play, this time about Satchel Paige and segregated baseball. We eventually focused on the epic rivalry between the two greatest pitchers who ever played, Satchel Paige and Bob Feller.
Kansas City Swing is the story of their legendary rivalry. Before World War II Feller was the highest-paid player in baseball. Satchel Paige was number two. Despite being segregated into the Negro Leagues, Satchel Paige was not only a genius pitcher and a great showman but also a helluva businessman. He figured out a way not only to survive but to flourish in segregated ball. His exploits were legendary. He would often call in the outfield, tell them to take a nap, so sure he was of striking out every player in the other team.
He was famous among black fans who watched him play and white fans who would read about him in the paper. When he finally was called into the major leagues in his forties, by far the oldest rookie ever, he said this: "Age is a matter of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it don't matter." His glib showmanship, his standup routines from the mound, were legendary: "I ain't ever had a job, I just always played baseball." "Airplanes may kill you, but they ain't likely to hurt you." "Avoid fried foods which angry up the blood."
But I wanted to also show a deeper side to one of the greatest athletes in history. The undisputed king of the Negro Leagues, he tried to tell himself that he wouldn't want to join the majors even if they asked. But when they did come around and instead picked a young, clean-cut college kid named Robinson to be the first to integrate the MLB, Satchel was crushed. Kansas City Swing is the story of how Satchel comes to grips with the possibility that his living legend would too soon fade, eclipsed by Robinson, number 42.
This great blow to this superstar brought out a deep philosophical side in the man and a quote that few seem to know is attributed to the one and only Satchel Paige:
"Work like you don't need the money.
Love like you've never been hurt.
Dance like nobody's watching."
How could I not write a play about such a great man, a witness and a participant to an extraordinary chapter in America history.
Kansas City Swing runs through October 27th at the Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ. http://www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org