Alabama Story, playwright Kenneth Jones’ new six-actor play inspired by real events that touch on Civil Rights and censorship issues in “the Deep South of the imagination,” had its world premiere Jan. 9-24, 2015, at Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City, UT. Artistic director Karen Azenberg directed the production, which earned rave reviews, standing ovations and unprecedented ticket sales for a new work at PTC. Five regional productions were presented in 2016, introducing the world to a little-known true story of a librarian persecuted for protecting books in the Jim Crow South.
Its recent regional success has prompted dozens of perusal requests for the script from theatres throughout North America. (Request a script here.)
At least five regional productions will be announced for the 2017-18 season, including its Tennessee premiere at the Clarence Brown Theatre. The Midwest, Deep South and New England will also see the play in the coming year.
In the two-act Alabama Story, a gentle children’s book with an apparent hidden message stirs the passions of a segregationist State Senator and a no-nonsense State Librarian in 1959 Montgomery, Alabama, just as the civil rights movement is flowering. Another story of childhood friends — an African-American man and a woman of white privilege, reunited in adulthood in Montgomery that same year — provides private counterpoint to the public events of the play. The drama is playful, serious, smart, funny, dark and hopeful all at once. The Cape Cod Times wrote that the play “artfully explores Southern attitudes when the civil rights movement is catching fire” and that “Jones effectively unites the political and personal.”
Alabama Story — a humor-laced social-justice drama that’s a vest-pocket cousin to “To Kill a Mockingbird” — was a 2016 nominee for the Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award. Florida Studio Theatre artistic director Richard Hopkins, himself a Southerner, called Alabama Story “probably the best Southern play I’ve read in 10 or 20 years.”
Alabama Story was the top-grossing original new play in the 50-year history of Pioneer Theatre Company. A second independent Equity production produced by Florida Studio Theatre played eight weeks in April and May 2016, in Sarasota, FL, marked the play’s Southern premiere, and was the top spring ticket-seller in the company’s history. (Here’s a review from the Sarasota Observer.) Its Midwest premiere was at Peninsula Players Theatre in Wisconsin in August 2016, when it became an audience favorite. In late August 2016 it had its New England premiere by Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater on Cape Cod, where it earned rave reviews.
Its fourth regional production was the Michigan premiere and the first to break into the university market: The Theatre Company, an acclaimed hybrid troupe that mixes professionals and undergrads, produced it in the playwright’s hometown, Detroit, Sept. 22-Oct. 9. (Even before it opened, The Detroit Free Press called it one of the new season’s Top 10 must-see productions. Listen to the WDET/NPR interview with the playwright.) Its community theatre debut was with The Drama Group of Chicago Heights, IL, in December 2016.
Here’s a roundup of some of the press attention:
Sarasota Observer, April 13, 2016: “The playwright evokes the Deep South of 1959 with spot-on dialog and dialect. Jones has a keen ear for cultivated Southern patois… You’ll want to get to know Jones’ characters. The only crusader in the bunch is on the wrong side. The rest quietly do the right thing. They don’t shout about their principles. But they stand on them.”
Salt Lake Tribune, January 13, 2015: “Razor-sharp direction. As the first of Pioneer Theatre Company’s newly instated Play-by-Play reading series to receive a full production, Alabama Story marks an impressive debut. Its ability to dramatically merge history and personal stories promises it a life far beyond this production. Kenneth Jones’ cleverly crafted play making its world premiere at Pioneer Theatre Company…ends as it begins with the characters asking, ‘Tell me a story,’ and the unifying strand is the way stories — real and fictional — shape our lives.”
American Theatre, January 16, 2015: “A real-life controversy about a children’s book from 1959 is the basis for a new play with freshly relevant themes.”
Deseret News, January 12, 2015: “A beautiful production full of warmth and endearing moments that will be deeply appreciated. Each character in emerging playwright Kenneth Jones’ finely crafted new play leads to a rich theater experience that is being warmly received in its premiere staging.”
Listen to the 50-minute Salt Lake City NPR show, “RadioWest,” which featured interviews with director, playwright and cast of Alabama Story, including excerpts.
Alabama Story — featuring four men and two women on a flexible stage — puts political foes, star-crossed childhood friends, and one feisty children’s author on the same page to conjure a Deep South of the imagination. This love letter to reading — a finalist in the 2014 National Playwrights Conference of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center — leaps from pages of history, exploring the moving story that earned librarian Emily Reed international headlines when she defended “The Rabbits’ Wedding,” a picture book by Garth Williams, best known for his artwork for “Little House on the Prairie” and “Charlotte’s Web.”
Truth is stranger than fiction when a book about a black rabbit marrying a white rabbit is put on the shelves of the Alabama State Library. The original cast featured Seth Andrew Bridges, Stephen D’Ambrose, Samuel Ray Gates, Greta Lambert, Kate Middleton and William Parry. James Noone designed sets, Phil Monat was lighting designer, Brenda van der Weil was costume designer, Amanda French was hair and makeup designer.
Playwright Kenneth Jones characterized Alabama Story this way: “It’s a romance, a political thriller, a memory play, a workplace drama, a tearjerker, a comedy, a discussion about race, censorship and political desperation, and a rumination on the power of books. Most important, it’s a play about how we behave when we face terrible circumstances — how character is revealed in times of transition, change and crisis.”
He adds, “I hope that Alabama Story sparks a memory of a beloved book, the person who gave it to you and the day you realized that a turning of the page could be both terrifying and wonderful, and that — on some level, no matter what our differences — we all share the same story.”
A monologue from Alabama Story was be published in the 2015 edition of “The Best Men’s Monologues” (Smith & Kraus).
Under the direction of Karen Azenberg, Alabama Story was developed in readings in the Southern Writers’ Project of Alabama Shakespeare Festival (May 2013), Play-By-Play New Reading Festival at Pioneer Theatre Company (April 2013) and NewTACTics New Readings Festival by TACT/The Actors Company Theatre (June 2014).
Here are playwright’s notes that have appeared in programs and on websites of theatres that have produced Alabama Story. This is for public use; feel free to copy, paste or quote.
Alabama Story playwright Kenneth Jones shares what attracted him to the real-life story behind his Southern-set historical drama, and what emerged in the writing process.
I draw on many sources to get ideas for the plays and musicals that I write. Alabama Story is the result of my passion for reading newspapers. I grew up reading papers, began my writing career in journalism and can’t imagine a world without the daily routine of digesting headlines.
In May 2000, while reading the New York Times, I came across the story of Emily Wheelock Reed, the former State Librarian of Alabama who had been challenged by a segregationist state senator in 1959. Senator E.O. Eddins demanded that a children’s picture book — Garth Williams’ The Rabbits’ Wedding, about a black rabbit marrying a white rabbit — be purged from the shelves of Alabama libraries on the grounds that it promoted race-mixing. Their conflict was reported worldwide. Before I finished reading the article, I knew this was an idea for a play.
Strong characters and richly contrasting conflicts rarely just fall into my lap, but that’s exactly what happened here. Vivid opposites — male and female, black and white, insider and outsider, Southern and Northern, private and public, child and parent, purity and ugliness — were immediately evident in this forgotten slice of American history. Knowing that Montgomery, Alabama, is so highly charged, historically, as both the Cradle of the Confederacy and the Cradle of Civil Rights helped my imagination to blossom further.
The elements from real life were so bold that they seemed to jump out like the cut-outs in a pop-up children’s book. I followed their lead and I gave them a wrangler in Garth Williams himself, who speaks directly to the audience and assumes multiple roles in this land that I call The Deep South of the Imagination. (Williams’ indelible illustrations were likely part of your childhood — he created the art for “Little House on the Prairie,” “Charlotte’s Web,” “Stuart Little” and more). I never approached my play as a dry docudrama; the goal was to make it “pop up” in a way that can only happen in the theatre.
Emily Reed’s story was widely documented in newspapers and magazines at the time, so a lot of source material existed, allowing me to steal and expand upon the actual language and public personalities of the participants. In fact, some of the most outrageous and theatrical language in the play, from the saber-rattling senator, is not made up. You know how playwrights sometimes explain their process as “the play wrote itself”? Well, in many ways Senator Higgins (as I renamed him) wrote himself.
The process of creating Alabama Story included research visits to Montgomery, Selma and the senator’s hometown of Demopolis, Alabama. I toured the State Capitol, walked the halls of Emily’s library office in the State Archive Building, wandered antebellum homes and graveyards and city parks and museums. I interviewed local historians and librarians and residents. I touched copies of the very newspapers that first reported this unique tale of Civil Rights through the lens of censorship.
The trip to Demopolis was particularly inspiring. It’s not only Senator Higgins’ stomping ground, but what I imagined as the childhood home of two characters who appear in the play’s reflective story. Lily and Joshua, a black man and a white woman who were once childhood friends in that small town, reunite in Montgomery the same year that the library battle is being waged. They are meant to suggest the private heart of the public controversy. Like the others in the play, they have a deep connection to books and reading, and the quality of their character will be challenged in their exchanges. I view Alabama Story as a mash-up of some of my favorite kinds of plays — courtroom thriller, memory play, romance, historical drama — but underneath all of that is a script about how character is tested in a time of great social change. How will you behave toward others when your world is turned upside down?
I hope that Alabama Story sparks a memory of a beloved book, the person who gave it to you and the day that you realized that a “turning of the page” could be both terrifying and wonderful. Maybe it will also be a reminder that no matter what our differences, on some level, we all share the same story.
William Parry, Stephen D’Ambrose, Seth Andrew Bridges and Greta Lambert in “Alabama Story” at Pioneer Theatre Company. (Photo by Alex Weisman)