All American Girls
nytheatre.com review by August Schulenberg
August 18, 2010
All American Girls, written and directed by Layon Gray, is a whodunit mystery set in the locker room of a women's team in the Negro Leagues during World War II. Coach Hicks has disappeared, and student reporter Laura James believes there is more to the story than the enigmatic letter of resignation left on Mr. West's desk. As she interviews each of the players, a conflicting portrait of the Coach emerges.
This interview structure is a particularly effective way to tell what is at heart a memory play, with each of the players' lives altered significantly by the Coach. As each character speaks, their memories come alive, painting a troubling picture of a charismatic tyrant of a woman, equal parts inspiring and destructive.
The first act focuses on the fascinating and frequently violent power dynamic between the players and Coach. Jonetta and Esther jockey for dominance, as Eddie, Sara, and Mattie defuse the tensions with humor and grace, and the timid Betty tries to justify her place on the team as owing more to her talent than her good looks.
But those squabbles disappear as soon as Coach Hicks enters the room. Played by Arlene A. Macgruder with an indomitable ease, Hicks beats down and builds up each of her players in a familiar coach dynamic made fresh by just how far she is willing to go. Her character is further deepened by an attraction to Betty, who at first cannot resist her advances.
Betty harbors a secret, however; as does her teammate Charley, a troublemaker as violent as Betty is shy. While I cannot discuss what doesn't work about this storyline without giving key plot twists away, their secret ends up more farcical than dramatic, in spite of a fierce performance by Ashley Jeffrey as Charley.
The production is further undermined by Gray's decision to frequently underscore important moments with melodramatic music and light shifts. His play needs no such help: after Coach's death, the women recover by breathlessly chanting their warm-up song in one of the productions most striking moments. But that power is nearly lost by the maudlin music that preceded it, and similar sound design decisions, from the thunder that ends Act One to the unnecessary sound of skipping stones, push the production at times into a caricature of itself.
Luckily, the beauty of the play breaks through thanks to the energy and talent of the young ensemble. Antoinette Robertson brings a wonderful vulnerability to Esther's bluster; Yasha Jackson finds intelligence and grace in the peacemaker Sara; and Chantal Nchako's moving portrayal of the tough loner Jonetta grounds the more sentimental second act. The amount of talent on the stage, and the joy they have in playing together, are enough to make All American Girls a good day at the ballpark.