Playwright Lydia R. Diamond on Toni Stone

By Ted Sod

Award-winning Toni Stone playwright Lydia R. Diamond grew up in a family of educators and musicians. She found playwriting in her third year at Northwestern while studying theater, and went on to act professionally for 10 years while writing and producing her own plays. It wasn’t until her first regional theater production of The Gift Horse at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, Diamond says, that she understood “I was happier and more adept at writing plays than being in them.”

Toni Stone premiered at Roundabout Theatre Company in 2019 before coming here to San Francisco. In addition to Toni Stone, Diamond’s playwriting career is expansive. Her other works include Smart People, Stick Fly (Broadway run at Cort Theatre), Voyeurs de Venus, Harriet Jacobs, and The Bluest Eye. She has also worked in television, and was a writer/ consulting producer for Showtime’s fourth season of The Affair, for which she was nominated for a Writer’s Guild Award for Best Drama. Diamond, an educator herself, is on faculty at University of Illinois at Chicago.

Toni Stone playwright Lydia R. Diamond. Photo courtesy Lydia R. Diamond. 

Can you talk about the commission of Toni Stone by Roundabout?
In the mid 2000s, my life got overwhelming and my commissions stacked up, including one from Roundabout. Separately, independent producer Samantha Barrie and director Pam MacKinnon had optioned a biography of Toni Stone by Martha Ackmann, Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, the First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League. They approached me to write a play about her. I was saying no to commissions at that time, but I couldn’t say no to this one. I was shocked that I hadn’t known of her, and felt that people should. We connected with Roundabout, and the commission they originally offered me became this play.

What would you say the play is about?
First and foremost it’s about Toni Stone. This remarkable woman is such an important part of our history, and prior to Martha’s book, she wasn’t sufficiently recognized and celebrated. Toni had rigor and a singular focus. Baseball is what she wanted to play, and she made it happen. Despite Jim Crow, institutional racism, and sexism, Toni fought to play ball with a tenacious, singular focus that didn’t leave room for being told what she couldn’t do. Ultimately, this is a story about perseverance and bravery and reaching for what you want.

Actors JaBen Early and Sean-Maurice Lynch, Playwright Lydia R. Diamond, and Actor Dawn Ursula at the first rehearsal for A.C.T.’s 2020 production of Toni Stone. Photo by Sean-Maurice Lynch.

What was your thinking about casting?
The American theater has finally started to address gender parity in earnest; still, we have such a long way to go. With this in mind, I labored over the decision to cast only one woman and eight men. Ultimately I decided that Toni really was the only woman and that’s a stunning visual statement that I wanted. I fell in love with the image of this one Black woman surrounded by Black men. These men hold her up and support her in the telling of the story. I also love that the ensemble members play a multitude of characters, including women, children, and white people.

What do you look for when collaborating with a director on a new work?
I have had the privilege of working with wonderful directors who begin with a respect and appreciation for the language. That’s so important. Arguably most important. Then of course there’s stewardship. Like Toni Stone, Pam MacKinnon is a badass, an elite athlete playing at the highest level. Pam’s rehearsal room is very much hers, and still she so generously and deftly invites collaboration. A big part of this process has been the work of Camille A. Brown, the choreographer, who is absolutely amazing. Pam has created an environment in which we all work in concert. She empowers people in a way that brings forth their best work.

This interview is excerpted from the Toni Stone issue of Words on Plays. Want to read more? Order your copy here. Toni Stone is onstage at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater starting March 5. Click here for tickets!

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