Fighting for A League of Their Own
By Gwen Orel, Wall Street Journal
When he was a boy growing up in Louisiana, the only theater Layon Gray had a chance to see was what came through on what’s known as “the Chitlin’ Circuit”—big, sentimental gospel musicals featuring African-American casts. When he told his family he was going into theater, they wanted to know if he would write like Tyler Perry—“It’s all they know,” he says.
But his new play “All-American Baseball Girls” at Manhattan’s Actors Temple Theatre, and will run in rep with his long-running drama “Black Angels Over Tuskegee,” is not a light comedy. Like “Black Angels Over Tuskegee,” it’s a story of African-American history during the 40s. “Black Angels Over Tuskegee” is about African American pilots in World War II who wanted to fly and prove they could do everything the white men could do. “All-American Baseball Girls” is about an all-negro female baseball team in 1945–and it’s also a murder mystery.
The story is fictional but the context is real. Gray has even located one of the women who played, Liz Wright, who lives in D.C.
Gray was inspired by a scene in the 1992 movie “A League of Their Own” where a black woman throws the ball back to Geena Davis, demonstrating an arm of steel. “All-American Baseball Girls” won an NAACP Award for best production in an earlier version staged in Los Angeles in 2006. This is its Off-Broadway premiere.
Now that “Black Angels” has run for seven months, says Gray, theaters that had rejected his scripts are calling asking for copies.
He produces his own work with his two companies, The Black Gents, and The Layon Gray Experience. “Experience,” he explains, as in the name of Jimi Hendrix’s band—because theater should change you.
“I did ‘Black Angels’ down South, on a promotional tour, in communities used to getting those gospel type of plays. After we’d done it, people were crying, saying ‘this is the best thing I ever saw.’ There is a market for this kind of work.”