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Working at breaking a barrier

Times Staff Writer

Jed Reynolds stars in an acclaimed play, “National Pastime,” in which he portrays all-American icon Jackie Robinson.

But that’s not the only role Reynolds performs at the Fremont Centre Theatre. He’s also the janitor.

In fact, he’s paid more money for being the janitor than he is for being the star.

So goes life at this 78-seat, mom-and-pop theater in South Pasadena -- or, for Reynolds, this stepmom-and-pop theater. It’s run by his father, James Reynolds, and stepmother, Lissa Layng Reynolds. James is the director, and Lissa is the producer of the play -- and they pitch in with the cleaning as well, tidying up the auditorium while 25-year-old Jed concentrates on the lobby, hallways and restrooms.

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They’ve run the Fremont Centre Theatre since 1997, but never have they produced a play that has created such proprietary interest from the community around them.

Robinson, the player who integrated major league baseball and helped inspire a generation of civil rights progress, grew up in Pasadena. Members of his family still live near the theater, and of course his team -- the Dodgers -- plays about five miles away, at Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles.

At least a couple of people who knew Robinson or share his family roots attend most performances, the producers say. Robinson’s sister-in-law Delano Robinson saw the play with her daughter and granddaughter, enthusiastically endorsed it and began spreading the word. His widow Rachel, who lives in Connecticut, is expected to see it soon. Two of the cast members -- Ted Lange and James Watson -- met Robinson briefly when they were children.

Though Jed Reynolds was born long after Robinson had died in 1972, he played basketball at Pasadena’s Robinson Park and kept a poster of Robinson’s baseball card in his room while growing up. Reynolds played baseball, too, until the eighth grade, when he decided to concentrate on basketball at South Pasadena High.

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“Baseball is like reading a good book. Basketball is like watching a good movie,” Reynolds says.

He first hit the stage as a second-grader, in a production his parents had written, from which his most vivid memory is that he forgot his lines. Although he intended to major in history in college, he turned to theater while at UC Santa Barbara.

“National Pastime” marks his first professional stage appearance outside Santa Barbara. When the play was first in the planning stages, his father was thinking about other actors for the role. But Jed’s maternal grandmother, Rosemary Layng, who was the theater’s managing director, suggested Jed. He performed the role at a reading well enough to clinch his casting, without a formal audition. But his grandmother didn’t get to see his performance in the production; she died in October.

His portrayal of Robinson in “National Pastime,” by Bryan Harnetiaux, is almost totally glowing, which Reynolds says is only appropriate. “For me he’s a larger-than-life hero, in many ways a modern-day Jesus.”

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However, he adds, “he’s also very human. He fights with his wife, he gets angry. I don’t feel I have to import flaws.”

Besides, the play “is not about Jackie Robinson,” the actor says. “It’s about him breaking the color barrier. It’s about that moment in time. It’s about the national pastime.”

James Reynolds adds that a play about Robinson’s later years would be more complicated, because it might demonstrate that “he wasn’t always the most popular guy,” that he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in its investigation of Paul Robeson, that he had a troubled relationship with his oldest son.

Robinson’s singular achievement also marked the beginning of the end of baseball’s Negro Leagues, which had given blacks not only jobs but also ownership roles. As he grew up in Kansas, James Reynolds wrote his first short story about the Negro Leagues’ visit to a small town. He acknowledges “that the downside of integration was the dismemberment of some black communities. It’s only now that you see the rise of a black middle and upper class.”

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Jed Reynolds has yet to make it to the upper class. Besides his duties as the theater’s janitor and star, he works as a waiter and appears in a currently shooting independent movie, “MOG.”

He has heard about plans for a Hollywood movie about the Robinson saga. The rumor mill says Jamie Foxx might star, but “he’s too old for it,” says Reynolds -- who is close to the age that Robinson was when he made history.

No offers have come his way, however. For now he must bear gibes by his pals -- one of whom remarked, “You did a great job as Jackie Robinson. But you missed a spot in the men’s room.”

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‘National Pastime’

Where: Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays

Ends: July 3

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Price: $20

Info: (626) 441-5977, www.fremontcentretheatre.com

Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes


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