A legendary Pittsburgh Pirates baseball player, also renowned for his humanitarian efforts, inspired Karen Zacarías’ rock musical, “Looking for Roberto Clemente.” The play, on the Imagination Stage through May 22, features the Puerto Rican superstar who met his untimely death in a 1972 plane crash while on a mission to deliver supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. It was commissioned and developed at Imagination Stage by Artistic Director Janet Stanford, who directs the production that debuted in 2008.
Zacarías, a Latina playwright, collaborated with composer Deborah Wicks LaPuma to tell the story of Sam and Charlie, baseball-loving best friends who aspire to join a prestigious Little League team. A mysterious fly ball transforms Sam into a superstar Little League pitcher that is invited onto the team, while Charlie is rejected because she is a girl. Charlie forms her own team with some less athletic children, including her new friend Tommy who has a disability. Ultimately, when they hear the news that Clemente has been lost, Sam and Charlie discover what it truly means to be a hero. “It’s a wonderfully orchestrated piece of dramatic climax. All the kids realize that they’ve been focused on the wrong thing, that winning is not what it’s about…that you have to care for other people,” Stanford said.
“We’ve long worked with Karen to try and have some things in our season which would respect our Latino audience,” Stanford said. “When my colleague (Kate Bryer) and I go to look for scripts, we find a real dearth of material that addresses the life stories of these very important members of our community.” As for Zacarías, she is “always really interested in making sure that our stories don’t get forgotten because we don’t happen to get a lot of stories on stage, and here we have an Afro-Latino character who people really looked up to and has not been introduced to a new generation.”
Ethnicity, disability, and gender are themes gently layered through a story that Stanford said is about selfishness and competitiveness versus altruism and what it means to be a hero. In the play, it is asked, “What do you do with a gift?” The question “is not answered in words,” Stanford said, but for her, the message is, “If you have a gift, either talent or resources, then you should give them.” For Zacarías, the play is “about the idea of competition and kids suddenly losing sight of what’s important because they get so interested in winning. It’s about learning to balance that with kindness and inclusivity.”
From conception to finish, Zacarías said, the writing process was a 2½-year journey that included researching Clemente as well as the era in which he lived. “I had to find a way to the point of view of a little boy who lived in Pittsburgh. It takes a little bit of time in cooking. You let it simmer and then you try different things and then finally, when you land on it, you go with it and see where it takes you,” she explained.
Seven musical numbers bring a 1970s classic rock feel to the score. “Karen and I had a lot of fun researching phrases and grooves of the day, and specifically of Pittsburgh, to pepper throughout the songs and script,” LaPuma said. She noted that the music helps establish a sense of magic in the story with poetic musical moments “where a character can talk to his hero through the radio and a stray baseball has magical powers.” “Sometimes in song, you can go places you just can’t go in dialogue,” Zacarías pointed out, emphasizing that “music is part of the heart and the soul of the play. It appeals to the grownups and the kids.”
Stanford talked to the cast about how the show reflects a child’s development. “As small children, we are all very appropriately focused on ourselves. We’re all very small and our job is to grow and learn,” she said, “but as you get older, there are certain markers where you begin to realize, oh, I’m part of a community and there are people in the community that have less than I have and people that have more. So that sort of growing awareness of where you are within your own world is a nice parallel to the idea of looking at America now through the lens of the future looking back at the ’70s.”
David Landstrom, 25, who plays Sam, identified “two solid morals” in the play: the first that “you should always be looking for how you can improve the world around you, and the other is there are really no differences between us. All differences are superficial – we’re all people.”
Zacarías believes that “Looking for Roberto Clemente” accomplishes “what children’s theatre should do, which is (to) kind of work as a tool for parents to talk with their kids, and kids to talk to their parents, about how to work through the world.”
The turning point for the character of Tommy, a boy denied a place on the team because of his disability, Stanford said, “is completely non-verbal. The kids all look at one another and realize that Clemente made his sacrifice…that they need to stop worrying about winning. They include Tommy, help him hold the bat and send him a gentle ball. He manages to hit it out of the park. It’s a very, very moving moment for everyone in the audience.”
“There’s such energy in this play–the choreography, the dancing, and the way we make baseball come alive on stage is really exciting,” Zacarías said. Sounds as if, just like Tommy, this production hits it out of the ballpark.
For more information, visit: www.imaginationstage.org