Theater / Film

Review: Layon Gray’s ‘The Girls of Summer’ focuses on a mystery at M Ensemble

Written By Christine Dolen
February 12, 2024 at 7:53 PM

The members of the Red Diamonds baseball team rejoice in “The Girls of Summer” by Layon Gray at M Ensemble at the Sandrell Rivers Theater,  Liberty City’s performing arts center, through Sunday, Feb. 25. (Photo courtesy of Christa Ingraham)

Playwright, director and actor Layon Gray has a talent for getting inside so many different facets of Black life and history – and for taking engaged audiences on that journey with him.

Miami’s M Ensemble, the state’s oldest Black theater company, has just begun its 53rd season with a production of Gray’s “The Girls of Summer.”

After presenting his “Kings of Harlem” in 2017 as the company’s inaugural production at the Sandrell Rivers Theater, then following it with “Meet Me at the Oak” in 2019, “Cowboy” in 2021 and “The Dahomey Warriors” in 2022, M Ensemble founders Shirley Richardson and Patricia E. Williams know their audiences respond to his signature blend of history and highly theatrical storytelling.

Chasity Hart’s Coby Rae watches as Lela Elam’s Coach Hicks shows Genesis Summers as Jonetta how tough she is in Layon Gray’s “The Girls of Summer.” (Photo courtesy of Christa Ingraham)

“The Girls of Summer,” which debuted in 2009, takes some of its inspiration from the history of Black women baseball players (and from the movie “A League of Their Own”). But this Gray play orbits around the mysterious disappearance of Coach Odessa Hicks (Lela Elam), who vanishes just before an exhibition game that could have been the triumph of her career.

It’s the mid-1940s, and Gray’s fictitious Hicks was once a barrier-breaking player in the all-male Negro Leagues (the play name checks Toni Stone, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson and Connie Morgan, three women who actually did so). Then someone threw a pitch that smashed her knee, her nascent career ended, and she became embittered and ill, carrying on as the sole caretaker for her sunny but slow daughter Lucy (Jenora Hamilton).

[RELATED: M Ensemble Celebrates 53-Year History]

For Hicks, the stakes in the exhibition game at Chicago’s Wrigley Field between the all-Black Red Diamonds and the all-white Racine Belles (the latter a real team in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League) could not be higher. Personal redemption, a brighter future for Black women athletes and demanding respect for her race all swirl through the coach’s mind as she drives the Red Diamonds to the breaking point in an often-cruel style.

Unsurprisingly, the women who make up the Diamonds don’t take to their coach’s critical, dismissive style.

Lela Elam’s Coach Hicks, left, has some words with the women of the Red Diamonds baseball team in “The Girls of Summer” at M Ensemble. (Photo courtesy of Christa Ingraham)

Piper (Mysia Anderson) lodges complaints that earn the others a session of running laps at night in the rain. Pitcher Mattie (Katchana Agama) has men on her mind as much as (or more than) baseball.  Coby Rae (Chasity Hart) left a husband and child behind, with his support, to pursue her baseball dream.  Floridian Martha Faye (Toddra Brunson) has a funny, bawdy mouth and a larger-than-life personality.

The team’s catcher Eddie (pronounced Edie and played by Dina Lewis) is an always-upbeat type who gets friendly quite fast with journalist Peter James (Milton Lyles II), who comes to interview the women about the coach’s disappearance.  Jonetta (Genesis Summers) is a late and pointedly hostile addition to the team.  And twin sisters Betty (Sophia Kenol, as a wide-eyed and insecure player) and Billie (Janine Johnson, aggressive and without boundaries) are as different as can be.

Milton Lyles II, left, is a journalist digging into a mystery, much to the displeasure of Rick Urban as baseball executive Mr. West in M Ensemble’s “The Girls of Summer.” (Photo courtesy of Christa Ingraham)

The play’s literal odd man out is Mr. West (Rick Urban), a white baseball executive who refuses to let anything – including the team’s missing coach – ruin what promises to be a huge payday, given the robust advance sales to mostly Black women ticket buyers. He wants to shut down the inquisitive Mr. James pronto, repeatedly mangling the Black reporter’s last name because he’s not really paying attention, even though he knows James poses a threat.

Structurally, Gray hops back and forth in time, utilizing Lyles’s effective James as a character and narrator to supply just enough information at any given time without ruining the mystery. As the director, his staging helps maintain the clarity of location and time.  Could the play be shorter? Is a bloody scene near the end way too drawn out? Yes and yes.

From left, Mysia Anderson, Chasity Hart, Toddra Brunson and Dina Lewis as members of the Red Diamonds baseball team in “The Girls of Summer.” (Photo courtesy of Christa Ingraham)

Without explicitly detailing all the twists and turns of its story, “The Girls of Summer” touches on bipolar disorder, sexual orientation, a boss crossing a line with a subordinate and the toll on those who become groundbreakers.  Gray’s dialogue is authentic and believable, and the funny parts (yes, there are funny parts) get plenty of laughs from the audience.

Although sometimes certain actors can be difficult to hear clearly, Mitchell Ost’s locker room set and lighting design, the costumes by Richardson and Dunia Pacheco, Williams’s set dressing and Diego Villada’s fight direction all work with strong performances to enhance Gray’s storytelling.

Elam has the most problematic, challenging role in the play – portraying a flawed human being is never easy – but the two-time Carbonell Award winner delivers one of the finest (perhaps the finest) performances of her career.  Her Coach Hicks has to be volatile, controlling, broken in body and spirit. Elam digs deep, then goes deeper and deeper.  Her work is both intense and, because of its excellence, electrifying.

Lela Elam as Coach Odessa Hicks the M Ensemble production of Layon Gray’s “The Girls of Summer.” (Photo courtesy of Christa Ingraham)

Watching the women portraying the Red Diamonds – Hart, Lewis, Summers, Johnson, Hamilton, Agama, Anderson, Kenol and Brunson – stirs a sense of discovery and affirmation.  Some of the actors are new to M Ensemble, others familiar talents.

When they’re facing casting challenges at other South Florida theaters, some producers have been known to ask, “Where are Miami’s great Black actors?”

The answer, but only through Feb. 25, is this:  They’re appearing in M Ensemble’s “The Girls of Summer.”

WHAT:  M Ensemble’s “The Girls of Summer”  by Layron Gray

WHERE: Sandrell Rivers Theater, 6103 NW Seventh Ave., Miami

WHEN:  8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through Feb. 25

COST: $36 plus $4.25 fee. (student and senior discounts at box office); special 2 for 1 tickets for certain nights at eventbrite.com.

INFORMATION:  305-705-3218 or themensemble.com

EXHIBITION:  A Golden Years exhibit of M Ensemble’s 53rd season is on the second level of the Sandrell Rivers Theater and can be viewed from noon to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday until Feb. 29.

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com. 

latest posts

As 21st century tensions rise, Actors’ Playhouse digs ...

Written By Christine Dolen,

Actors' Playhouse finds that the time is right for "Caroline, or Change," which has been on their bucket list for years.

Review: Gablestage Creates Its Own Magnificent ‘T...

Written By Michelle F. Solomon,

GableStage's "The Lehman Trilogy" is stunningly staged as three actors take audiences on a journey of multiple eras and characters.

Review: A ‘Cabaret’ For Today At Zoetic Sta...

Written By Michelle F. Solomon,

Zoetic Stage at the Arsht finds the spaces in between 1930s Berlin and contemporary America in "Cabaret."