'Clemente': The Bases Are Loaded

By Amy Orndorff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 11, 2008

Racism. Sexism. Death.

All adult themes wrapped up in "Looking for Roberto Clemente," a musical -- for children -- at Bethesda's Imagination Stage.

"They need to hear these things just as much as older kids," says director Kathryn Chase Bryer.

To make the darker themes of the life of Clemente (a superstar Pittsburgh Pirates baseball player who struggled with racism and died in a plane crash) palatable for a younger audience, playwright Karen Zacarías mixes humor, rock-pop musical numbers and a bit of hope. Then she lets the kids sort out their feelings about the themes on their own, without the scripted lectures of adults. The play is a departure from what Bryer calls "fuzzy bunny" children's theater of comforting yet unrealistic fantasy.

But make no mistake, this is for kids. (That is made clear by the booster seats and the clear, soundproof room where squirmy kids can watch and listen to the show.)

Even the squirmiest of kids might want to hear the first number, a toe-tapping song that places the audience in 1972 Pittsburgh, a town star-struck by Clemente, who is on the verge of his legendary 3,000th hit.

Listening to the game at home, 11-year-old Sam Kowalski (Derek Manson) cheers for Clemente, who magically talks to him through the radio. When a ball crashes through Sam's window, he is certain that it has come from Clemente's 3,000th hit and that it has blessed him with near-impossible powers on the mound.

The newfound skills are a blessing and a curse: He earns a spot on the area's best Little League team, the Barracudas, but loses his best friend, Charlie, when she is kicked off the team for being a girl. Charlie (short for Charlotte) is better than the boys, and so she rallies the other Barracuda rejects -- a bespectacled geek and a bat boy with Down syndrome -- and starts her own team.

Even the youngest audience member may realize that the gang's fight for playing time parallels Clemente's struggles as a poor Puerto Rican trying to succeed in the big leagues.

"Lots of people told Roberto Clemente that he couldn't play . . . that he was too poor, too black, too Spanish," Charlie (Erika Rose) yells at her former teammates. "And look at him now! Well, just you wait."

It wasn't an accident that a Little League coach didn't swoop in to encourage everyone to play nice. Zacarías made Clemente the only adult on stage, and even he doesn't interfere with the kids' problem solving.

"You really watch these kids work it out themselves," Bryer says.

When Bryer, a veteran of children's theater, started working on the play two years ago, she was interested in introducing kids to a real hero. She couldn't think of anyone better than Clemente, who once said, "Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don't, then you are wasting your time."

The casting of Don Kenneth Mason serves to make Clemente look even more superhuman. Mason's Herculean biceps make the legend seem flawless and larger than life.

Bryer says she made a conscious effort not to gloss over real-life events, specifically Clemente's plane crashing on the way to deliver aide to victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. The announcement interrupts the championship game between Sam's and Charlie's teams, and when they hear it, they realize that there is much more to being a hero than simply playing baseball well.

"We really want to make sure they leave with some hope," Bryer says.

Looking for Roberto Clemente Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. 301-280-1660.http://www.imaginationstage.org. Saturday-June 1. $10-$20. Looking for Roberto Clemente Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. 301-280-1660.http://www.imaginationstage.org. Saturday-June 1. $10-$20.

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