Kuntu Repertory Theatre has concentrated this season on the work of long-time playwright in-residence Rob Penny, wrapping up the slate with Among the Best -- The Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays. Like Clean Drums earlier this year, which focused on jazz drummer Joe Harris, the play delves into the history of local African-American celebrities. The production does it in much the same way, with exposition and narrative rather than dramatic development. And again the concept suggests a celebration of community for audiences gathered to experience collective consciousness. Penny, meanwhile, seeks to lighten the information with entertainment, peppering it all with unrelated pop songs and dance numbers.
In Among the Best, the late Penny explored Negro League baseball of the 1920s, '30s and '40s, when the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays were considered two of the best teams in the country. Two contemporary kids hanging out at a playing field, Kemiya and Greg, encounter the ghosts of such greats as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Cool Papa Bell. The star players talk about themselves, pitch some balls, hit some runs, play with the kids, sometimes sing what they have to say, as if testifying, and join up to dance -- creating, in effect, a team across time.
The players don't say much about being black and what that means. So, as in Clean Drums, Penny doesn't raise many issues about discrimination, more often telling audiences about cultural legacy no matter what race. He also invokes long-gone white baseball manager/coaches Branch Rickey and Bill Veeck, who talk about what it meant to hire black players in previously all-white major leagues. This leads to a discussion about Jackie Robinson, as these ghosts of the Crawfords and Grays question his fitness to represent them.
Director Talvin Wilks has done a lot to keep everybody colorfully moving on stage, making the experience look lively even if not much significant develops. Willa "Katy" Cotton, wandering in and out as an evidently unmotivated "Chanteuse," sings her turns with much vocal skill. And Tyrone Johnson, as Ted Page, shows he's got equal talent in a short song, one of several scattered throughout which go uncredited and unidentified in the program.
In that book and in the lobby, there is more interesting information about the local teams and their famed players. Call this lively instruction rather good theater.
Among the Best -- The Pittsburgh Crawfords and The Homestead Grays continues thorough June 13. University of Pittsburgh Alumni Hall, 4227 Fifth Ave. (7th floor), Oakland. 412-624-7298 www.kuntu.org