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The Work of Joy: Chanté Adams and Will Graham on A League of Their Own

Since her acting debut in 2017's "Roxanne Roxanne," Chanté Adams has been one to watch. Her portrayal of rapper Roxanne Shante in the film earned her the Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Performance at the Sundance Film Festival. From there, she's soared, starring in everything from "The Photograph" to "A Journal For Jordan." Now, Adams has teamed up with Abbi Jacobson and Will Graham for Prime Video's television adaptation of "A League Of Their Own."

Like Penny Marshall's 1992 film of the same name, this story is set amid World War II. The series follows a slew of new characters vying for spots in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). Moving well beyond the baseball diamond, "A League Of Their Own" (2022) showcases the personal lives of the women trying to realize their dreams amid a rapidly changing world.  

In the series, Adams stars as Max, a Black woman feeling trapped and confined in her hometown of Rockford, Illinois. Jacobson stars as Carson, an Iowa housewife torn between tradition and the future. 

The first two episodes of "A League of Their Own" debuted at the American Black Film Festival (ABFF), which ran from June 15 to June 19, 2022. 

RogerEbert.com was in attendance for an interview with Adams and Graham about their riveting new series and why it goes well beyond the film.

Will Graham at the Tribeca Film Festival. Credit: Prime Video

Will, why did you feel responsible for amplifying the voices of women and people of color when it came to bringing this project to life? 

WILL GRAHAM: I'm a queer man. I know what it's like to be the only one like me in a room. I grew up with ["A League Of Their Own" (1992)], and I loved it. There was something about this movie that said, "It's OK to be on the field, even if you don't feel like you're supposed to be on the field." This is a show about teams, which can mean many different things in life. I knew from the start that this show was only going to be able to be written and realized by a team. That was the way to get to the best version of this show. Typically in TV, the showrunner is like the author's voice, and that's not true for me. There's more than one writer here. There's more than one way of looking at these characters in these stories, and we want to open up space for that. We tried to create a culture based on that openness and feedback. I think it comes from that spirit of the show, which is about the joy of doing the thing that you love and about teams.

Chanté, what about this story made you decide it was the right show for you to enter into the television world? 

CHANTÉ ADAMS: I like to be a part of things that I haven't seen before, and I had never seen a story about a Black woman in sports during this time, so that was something that I wanted to do. My career has always been about telling the stories of complex and complicated Black women. That is who Max Chapman is.

Maxine is an amalgamation of several real-life women. Can you discuss the women your character is based upon? 

CA: Max is based on three women: Mamie Johnson, Toni Stone, and Connie Morgan. They were Black female baseball players who went on to play in the Negro Leagues. They were the first women to ever play on major league teams. I think the fourth woman ever to do it was Kelsey Whitmore, one of our coaches during this process. That was this year, 2022. These women did this back in the fifties. We should know their names, and we should know their stories.

Chanté Adams at the Tribeca Film Festival. Credit: Prime Video

Did you know how to play baseball before shooting the series?

CA: I did start that rumor in the audition room. [laughs] You've got to say what you've got to say to get the part. They quickly learned that I may have embellished the truth on my first day at baseball practice. They had a coach work very closely with me throughout the process. Justine Siegal, the first woman employed in Major League Baseball (MLB) as a coach, came in and trained us for months to prepare us for the series. I have a strong arm now, but three years ago, I didn't. 

What was the most challenging aspect of playing baseball for you?

CA: Our director of the first three episodes, Jamie Babbit, will say how she was always yelling behind the camera. "You're too graceful." I'm a dancer and was a cheerleader for ten years, so I would be trying to pitch, but my toe would be pointed. So it was just about breaking those habits and making it look as authentic as possible.

Racism, sexism, and homophobia are all major themes in this series. How do you balance that creatively without it becoming trauma porn?

WG: We've talked a lot about that in the process of creating the show, and it's part of the core values of this show. Our approach to it comes from the real women behind the show and their stories. Mamie Johnson, for example, did go to try out for the AAGPBL, something not so different than what happens to Max in the pilot. We have so few stories in historically marginalized communities in this period centered on joy and the joy of getting to be the person you want to be, or fall in love with the person you want to, or do the thing you want to do. 

One of the things that we wanted to come across in the show is the transformative and radical quality of joy. One of the amazing things about Mamie, Toni, and Connie is that they imagined this world for themselves and that there was no evidence of a reality for it, but they still let themselves do that. They had to see it themselves before anyone else could see it. The work of joy is a lot of what the show is centered on, and everything else is an obstacle. The racism, the sexism, the homophobia—sometimes you have to break through it, but we didn't ever want it to be what the story was about.

The series has a pretty large cast, and the chemistry between you is undeniable. Did you become close during filming? 

CA: Yes. We were all together in the middle of Pittsburgh for four months. So we had no choice but to lean on each other and become a family. We hung out outside of filming while we were filming, and we got close. It was awesome.

The Black community in Rockford during 1943 is so beautifully illustrated here. How did you capture the nuances? 

WG: We wanted to tell a story that ultimately is tied to the Great Migration. It's 1943, so massive numbers of people are showing up every week on the trains, and the nature of this community in these smaller Midwestern cities is changing dramatically and quickly. We wanted to be authentic to that world. Toni (Saidah Ekulona), who is Max's mom, is someone who's at the center of that world. We spoke to a large group of 80 and 90-year-old Black women in Rockford, heard their stories from the time, heard their favorite restaurants, listened to what made their community work, and gave it a heartbeat. We tried with all our writers and directors to just bring that onto the screen.

"A League of Their Own" debuts on Prime Video on August 12. 

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