Sometimes you’re presented with the opportunity to witness something wonderful, something you wouldn’t have even known existed except by an uncanny twist of fate. So I found myself queuing outside Hackney Empire to experience Shadowball, Julian Joseph’s community jazz opera about baseball. Now I don’t know the first thing about baseball, I know little about jazz, and it was the first time in my life I’d ever been to Hackney. But my slight apprehension at being an uninitiated reviewer was transformed by the air of excitement around the entrances, where people of all ages, colours and creeds were evidently buzzing about the spectacle they were about to behold.

Shadowball tells the story of black baseball players in the 1940s, forced to play ball in the Negro Leagues instead of the Major (whites only) Leagues. Developed by Hackney Music Development Trust, the cast features just one adult – Cleveland Watkiss playing the oracle-like Satchel Paige – and an army of Hackney primary school children. Julian Joseph, who composed the opera’s score, led his quintet from the piano, and directed proceedings alongside the incredibly engaging co-director Jenny Gould, who was charged with the colossal task of keeping the children engaged and in tow. The host of kids was amassed on stage as the curtain raised, seated in ‘ballpark’ tiers and sporting an impressive array of beautiful forties costumes in miniature, from head-kerchiefs and aprons to boaters and spats. This marvellous sight, accompanied by the opening a capella chorus ‘Take me out to the ball game’, made for a remarkably striking opening, in which all the initial anticipation and excitement burst into colour and song.

If the excitement dipped for Satchel’s opening recitative, which explained both the situation for black ballplayers in the forties, and ‘shadowball’ itself – a mime game of baseball used by the Negro League players as a warm-up routine – it returned as the opening chorus was taken up again by full cast and band. The performers all radiated theatricality as they went about their choreographed routines selling hotdogs, touting, posing for (and taking) team photographs. Their confidence belied both excellent direction from Clare Whistler and tirelessly rehearsals. It wasn’t exactly ‘professionalism’, (as you’d expect when 99% of the performers are under the age of ten – and so much the better), but I really got the sense that hours of hard graft, inspired by the boundless enthusiasm of the kids and the dedicated passion of the adults, made the show such a seamless spectacle.

Part of the point of this project was to promote the sport of baseball, and all the schoolchildren involved were given the opportunity to play the sport for themselves. I was particularly jealous when I found out they’d all had a tournament on Finsbury Park – it sounds like a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon! The promotional aspect in the opera itself amounted to passages in the score in which the game was explained verbally, mostly by Watkiss recitatives. These were, as might be expected, the weakest musical moments in the opera. However, they were few and far between; in addition to the beautiful interlude passages, which saw the band shine and the jazz itself come to the fore as one of the protagonists of the opera, Joseph showed strokes of musical inspiration, for example setting black players and white officials in counterpoint for ‘Black and White Don’t Play Together’, or the offstage chorus, situated high up in the balcony at the top of Hackney Empire, singing pro-separation lyrics down at the black players: a literal representation of the hierarchical social structure.

This points towards the most important issue that Shadowball tackles, namely that of racial segregation, and how, in overcoming it, it should never be forgotten. ‘This Game is Life’ was not just the song of an impassioned ballplayer: it put the whole struggle into the bigger picture. And when, at the end of the opera, the fight was won – the black players being signed up for Major League teams – and the Negro League was no more, the message of ‘Shadowball League, a Beautiful Dream’ was that the game never ends, that we must all remember the black game and its players.

The opera didn’t end on a depressing note, though. The final chorus, a call and response extravaganza directed by an overjoyed Watkiss, provided an ecstatic ending that touched everyone in the Empire. After rapturous applause, numerous curtain calls involving much wonderfully disorganised, unsynchronised and enthusiastic bowing, Joseph himself took to the microphone, thanking all involved in this immensely inspirational and important project, and stating how it helps the kids learn about music, social injustice, history, baseball and themselves. It was a touching speech, but I would go further: it taught everyone, and furthermore, in a truly beautiful and moving way.

Shadowball, at Hackney EmpireDavid Fay witnessed Shadowball, Hackney Music Development Trust's inspirational jazz opera about baseball, at Hackney Empire4