When John Hardy was a kid, dreaming of being a professional baseball player, Jackie Robinson was his hero.
“I wasn't born yet when he became the first African-American in the major leagues, but he was my hero just because of the way he played,” Hardy said. “He was famous for stealing home, which was something I began doing. I wanted to emulate him long before I understood his contribution.”
Hardy also remembers the summer of 1967, when race riots resulted in the deaths of 30 people in his hometown of Newark, N.J. He was 10.
“Ever since then, race relations and equality for all kinds of people have been issues very close to me,” he said. “And I can't help but ask, would this have happened without Jackie Robinson?”
All of that makes guest-directing the Rose Theater's production of “Jackie & Me” a personal mission for Hardy, of Abingdon, Va. The hourlong family show, which opens Friday, has a time-travel twist that takes us back to 1947, when Brooklyn Dodgers manager Branch Rickey broke baseball's color barrier by hiring Robinson. Hardy relates to the show's central character.
Joey, age 10, is assigned a school research project for Black History Month. A rare baseball card becomes a magical ticket for time travel, and he arrives in Brooklyn just in time for Robinson's contract signing. Joey has a temper on the baseball field, and his own skin darkens during time travel. So he has much to learn from his hero, Jackie Robinson, about racial inequality and self-control during that rookie season.
Robinson was signed only after Rickey famously asked him if he had the courage not to fight back if provoked by racists at baseball games. He was sorely tested but succeeded.
“Joey not only learns about Jackie,” Hardy said, “but also how to really conduct a fight — which is what Jackie did, except he never used fists. He used will, head and heart. Joey learns about fighting through the way you conduct yourself on the field.”
Hardy singled out Steven Dietz's script for praise. Dietz, one of the most produced playwrights in the United States, is known locally for his comedy “Becky's New Car,” which was a hit at the Omaha Community Playhouse a couple of seasons ago. Dietz adapted Dan Gutman's book “Jackie & Me.” Hardy said the script is “as fine a piece of dramatic literature as you'll find in any given year.”
To further bolster the show's history and life lessons, Love's Jazz & Arts Center, 2510 N. 24th St., is presenting an exhibit titled “Stealing Home: How Jackie Robinson Changed America.” A collection of historical photos, with accompanying text, tells the story of Robinson's life and of the push for civil rights that in some ways began in major league baseball.
The exhibit, which runs through April 30, includes the 1950 movie “The Jackie Robinson Story,” in which Robinson plays himself. Robinson's pro-ball jerseys, cleats, glove, bat and shoes are also on display. The center is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays.
“Robinson broke through so many challenges,” said Tim Clark, executive director of the center. “What an example — a person who chooses to stand up for what is right.”
Clark said Omaha has its own racial challenges, which will require others to stand up.
“You can't grow until you have that conversation,” Clark said. “We've got to talk about it.”