A barbershop in the 1950s and the world of Josh Gibson in the 1930s and 1940s.
A barber in 1957 remembers the story of Josh Gibson. The audience is taken back in time and shown the life and struggles of the famous Negro League baseball player.
Scene 1: Cut Off Man barbershop, Brooklyn, NY 1957
Boys are playing stickball and hit a ball into a barbershop. The Elder and Younger Barbers argue about the Negro League and the legacy of Josh Gibson. The Elder Barber remembers Gibson’s incredible accomplishments and describes the day that Gibson hit a ball completely out of Yankee Stadium.
Scene 2: Yankee Stadium, NY 1930
The Elder Barber describes the epic battle between pitcher Broadway Connie Rector and a young Josh Gibson.
Scene 3: A park in Homestead, PA 1930
Spectators respond to Josh’s home run. Josh and Helen look to their future and Helen tells Josh that she is pregnant. After a dark musical interlude, Josh reflects on Helen’s death giving birth to their twin children. He tells of his remaining love, the game of baseball.
Scene 4: Crawford Grill, Pittsburgh, PA 1935
Players and fans of the Pittsburgh Crawfords celebrate the team’s owner. Josh arrives with Hattie. Wendell Smith introduces himself to Josh. The daily number is called and the winner is a woman named Grace—who coincidentally bet 440, Josh’s batting average the previous season. Smith suggests that with numbers like that, Josh might make history by playing for a white team and breaking the color barrier, an idea his teammates disdain. Josh and his teammates scoff at Smith’s idea, but Josh is secretly intrigued by it. Grace persuades him to consider it.
Scene 5: Wendell Smith’s office, Pittsburgh Courier, March 1938
Wendell “Smitty” Smith asks Josh to consider working together to break the color barrier. Smith recalls his experience with segregation in college and admits that he was never “lightning” like Josh. Smith says Josh could change everything. Josh commits to think about it.
Scene 6: Josh’s apartment, Pittsburgh, PA, March 1938
Josh and Grace, now a couple, return from a night on the town. She scolds him, describes his greatness, and urges him to broaden his dreams.
Scene 7: Owner’s office, Griffith Stadium, Washington, DC, April 1940
Clark Griffith and his nephew meet with Josh and dangle the notion of playing for the Washington Senators. The meeting has clearly been set up to appease the black press. After complimenting Josh’s skills, they warn him about the consequences of playing in the majors. The exchange grows threatening. The Griffiths pompously describe their responsibility and their foremost concern with Josh’s best interests, making it clear they have no intention of signing him. Clark walks Josh to the door and tells him, “Boy, there’s a colored facility at the top of the stairs.”
Scene 8: Outside the Griffith Office, and Crawford Grill, April 1940
Josh, demoralized and frustrated, says all he ever wanted was his wife Helen and the game. He arrives at the Crawford Grill, where players are discussing a lucrative offer from Mexico that hinges on Josh’s participation. Smith wants Josh to stay and fight, but Josh eagerly accepts the deal. Grace agrees, “as long as it’s temporary.”
Scene 1: Escambron Stadium, Vera Cruz Mexico, October 1941
A tremendous celebration; Josh is heralded as player of the year by mayor of Vera Cruz, Señor Alcalde. Out of his earshot, Sam tells Josh that another offer has come in from back home matching the Mexican pay they receive. Grace is excited to return home, but Josh celebrates the good life he and the other players enjoy in Mexico. As the revelers bring their party off stage, Grace tells him he can do what he likes, but she’s not staying in Mexico. The partiers return, and Grace leaves disappointedly. Josh complains that his head isn’t feeling so well, and as the celebration begins to spin out of control, Josh proclaims his need to go home, and then loses his balance and collapses.
Scene 2: Wendell Smith’s Office, Pittsburgh Courier, March 1945
Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, visits Smith in his office, telling him that he is proudly ready to hire a black player for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He tells Smith he needs someone “with the spirit to fight back, but…the guts not to.” Smith tells Rickey, “I may have a name for you.”
Scene 3: An empty ballfield, Homestead, PA, October 1945
Josh stands alone on a field hitting balls deep into the outfield, lamenting that nothing’s changed for him in the four years since Mexico. Players engage in a pickup game of sorts, where younger Trash Talking Player takes a turn at bat with Josh catching behind him. The two trade insults. Sam urges the younger players to respect Josh. Smith then arrives, excitedly informing the players of the news that Jackie Robinson has been hired to join the Dodgers’ Montreal farm team. Josh, is crestfallen leaves, while the others pepper Smith with questions and celebrate the news.
Scene 4: The Old Crawford Grill, now closed, Later that day, October 1945
On a tip from Sam, Grace finds Josh. She chides that it should have been him making the news today. Josh talks of imaginary conversations he has had with Joe DiMaggio, and Grace tells him that her husband is returning from war, and their relationship must end. Grace realizes that she now has to face up to her real life and abandon her fantasies about a life with Josh. She leaves him there.
Scene 5: Josh’s bedroom, Homestead, PA, January 1947
Josh, with frenzied intensity, speaks directly to an imagined Joe DiMaggio. He then announces, “I’m going to die tonight.” Sam enters to pay his respects to his dying friend, and to tell him the news that Jackie Robinson is going to break camp with the big league Dodgers. They listen to a news report about it on the radio, as Josh withdraws into his own delirium. He is visited by the ghost of Helen. Josh realizes where he is, and speaks to Sam about his fabled Yankee Stadium Home Run, and then dies. Sam sings an aria about the fallen Summer King, who led all Negro Leaguers to the Promised Land, but was denied entry himself. He then contemplates his own plight, and that of his contemporaries. We see that the Elder Barber is an example of just the kind of player about which Sam sings. The Elder Barber again extolls Josh Gibson’s greatness, as Sam asks “did we need to be greater men than our king to avoid our king’s fate?” A chorus of Negro League ballplayers accompanies Sam’s final lines.
Scene 6: The Cutoff Man Barbershop, Brooklyn, 1957 [but overlapping with the previous scene]
Elder Barber and Younger Barber briefly continue their age-old argument before the Elder Barber has the Young put on “the damn game.”
Epilogue: Outside Yankee Stadium, NY, 1930
When the radio is switched on, lights immediately dim on the barbershop and come up on the children’s stickball field that we saw at the beginning of the opera, although now it is located directly outside of Yankee Stadium. The Radio Announcer reprises his call of the legendary home run. We hear the crack of the bat, and the Streets Kids freeze, looking straight up to the sky, as the Radio Announcer asks “Where’d it go? Is it fair? Is it fair?…” The Street Kids scatter to the side, and one – the same boy who chased the ball at the outset of the opera (in 1957) – emerges with the baseball, as the Street Kids sing a final chorus of “Did ya see?