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Josh: The Black Babe Ruth at New Horizon

It isn’t so much a bio-play as a portrait of struggle

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New Horizon Theater celebrates its 25th anniversary with a salute to a Pittsburgh hero. Josh: The Black Babe Ruth juxtaposes the greatness of the future Hall of Famer with the systemic racism that withheld the Major League stature he deserved. The Negro Leagues slugger died young, at age 35 in 1947 — of a broken heart, the legend goes — just a few months before Jackie Robinson officially broke the color barrier.

Michael A. Jones’ 2008 one-act touches on parts of Gibson’s early life, but Josh isn’t so much a bio-play as a portrait of struggle, “a dream deferred,” in Langston Hughes’ famous (and acknowledged) words. Josh is indeed dream-like, moving back and forth in time, inside Gibson but also with running commentary from his buddy and brother, Pittsburgh/baseball legend Satchel Paige.

The surreal approach is lovingly punctuated with photos of the times (projected on the wall) and classic songs, both recorded and live. The result, while pleasant, isn’t always easy to follow. I never realized that the character of the harridan Hattie, seemingly from a previous generation, wasn’t an in-law or aunt, but Gibson’s estranged second wife. Nor is it clear that Gibson’s neurological problems long predated his alcohol and alleged (never proven) drug abuse.

The small cast, directed by Charles Dumas, brings a lot of energy. In the mercurial title role, the always dependable Jonathan Berry contrasts the steadiness of Satchel Paige, played strongly by Lamar K. Cheston. Shaun McCarthy embodies the siren Grace Fournier, the femme fatale who aids Gibson’s self-destruction. Jacquea Olday ably portrays several women, including the mysterious Hattie.

But it’s Kevin Brown who, besides serving as the multiple male ensemble, provides the pulse of the play as the Music Man. In between the occasional comic turn as a bartender or observer, Brown belts out spirituals and blues that clean out the soul. Most notable, seemingly Josh’s “theme” song, is Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.”

Here’s one kind favor: It is indeed. Allegheny Cemetery Section 50, Lot C, Grave No. 232. Wear sturdy shoes for the uphill climb. More symbolism?

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