Jackie Robinson Loved Pickles? A Q&A with Gregory Gibson Kenney
For the last several years we’ve offered insights from our Chautauqua living history performers about the characters they present. This year’s Chautauqua features three Americans who played important roles during Turning Points in History: Jackie Robinson, Rachel Carson, and Amelia Earhart. We’ve asked actor Gregory Gibson Kenney, who will portray the iconic baseball player, to provide some insights about Jackie Robinson and his process for creating new living history presentations. Visit our website to access a statewide schedule of Chautauqua performances!
How would you describe your experience as a performer who specializes in living history portrayals? What is it like to portray a historical figure? What other figures do you portray? Is there a historical character to play whom you’ve always wanted to portray?
As an actor portraying figures in history, it is very exciting to get to share that person’s story, to share their hard times and the adversity that they have gone through to achieve their goals. It can be very inspiring. It is an incredible experience to take on that life and feel some of the emotions that person experienced and to share that with an audience. I present programs on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, York the slave that went on the Lewis and Clark expedition, Louis Armstrong, Bill Cosby, and Roberto Clemente.
What do you do to prepare for a living history performance? How much time does it take to prepare for such a role? Does portraying a historical figure offer unique challenges?
Preparing a program requires a lot of research. I read many books on each person, I watch footage of the person if it is available. Then I sit down and write the script. Next comes memorizing the material, followed by two weeks of rehearsal. The process takes about six weeks in total to develop a new character. Yes, there are many challenges, the biggest being memorizing the material and then honing the piece in rehearsal for the greatest impact. It can be very frustrating, but the process is helpful.
How long have you been performing as Jackie Robinson? MHC had the pleasure of presenting your performance as Jackie Robinson in 2009. How have perceptions—or awareness—about Jackie Robinson changed since the last time you performed at Chautauqua?
I’ve been performing Jackie for 17 years. No not much has changed in my perception of him since he has been one of my biggest heroes since I was in second grade. I’ve always respected him and been in awe of him for what he accomplished.
This year’s Chautauqua theme is “Turning Points in History.” Many people know Mr. Robinson for ending sixty years of baseball segregation with is 1947 Major League debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but later in life, Robinson also played an important role as an activist of social change. What do you think inspired Robinson, aided his resolve? What, in your opinion, is the most surprising thing that people might not know about him?
He and his wife Rachel’s resolves were very strong. I believe his experience breaking the color barrier prepared him to take on social change in society. He was very active in the civil rights movement and surrounded himself with friends and people who also wanted this social change. Some may be shocked to know that he was a registered Republican and worked on Nixon’s 1960 Presidential Campaign, because of the support he had received from many Republicans at that time. Also some may be surprised to know he had an incredible appetite for pickles.
• View photos from past Chautauquas and images and videos related to the 2013 Chautauqua characters (Jackie Robinson, and Amelia Earhart) on MHC’s Pinterest Page.
Jackie Robinson endured a great deal of opposition when he entered Major League baseball, but his struggle inspired others, such as Roberto Clemente, baseball’s first Spanish-speaking player. Did sportsmen who integrated other sports, such as Fritz Pollard (NFL) and Willie O’Reilley (NHL), have an easier time? How would you encapsulate Robinson’s legacy for African-Americans in professional sports today?
Other athletes actually endured the same type of conditions as Jackie Robinson. Clemente was highly criticized and
teased during his first few years in the league. Pollard also had to deal with segregation issues. Willie was considered the Jackie Robinson of Hockey and went through a terrible time breaking the color barrier in that sport. I hope that they studied Jackie’s blueprint.
Often times I wonder if the athlete of today really appreciates what he and others went through to make sports as diverse as they are today. It’s like anything—some get it and some don’t.
Have you seen “42,” the recent bio-pic of Jackie Robinson? What did you think of the movie?
42 was a wonderful, and long overdue, way to remember and honor Jackie and Rachel. I was hoping that it would cover his entire life but they did a wonderful job of depicting his relationship with Mr. Branch Rickey.
There is a Q&A, in character, which follows your performance. What’s the most interesting question (or oddest) you’ve been asked before? Is there a question you’ve always expected but never been asked?
As far as questions well I don’t get many odd ones. Probably in the schools the oddest questions asked would be “What was his favorite food?” Again, that would of been pickles. He loved them and liked to drink the juice as well.
One question that I wished more folks would ask is about his batting helmet. Not many know that his was specially made and was bullet proof, because of the many death threats against him. It was heavy and awkward. It is on display at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown.