Repertory Theatre of St. Louis will produce Kenneth Jones’ censorship-and-social-justice drama Alabama Story in January 2019, marking the 60th anniversary of the real-life controversy that inspired the six-actor play. When the Civil Rights movement was catching fire in Montgomery in 1959, politicians sought to purge what they perceived as pro-integration books from the state library — including a children’s picture book about a black rabbit marrying a white rabbit.
State librarian Emily Wheelock Reed became a target — and an inadvertent Civil Rights hero — when she stood between a book-burning state senator and a children’s picture book called “The Rabbits’ Wedding.” Their battle over the apparent message of the book and its appropriateness in Alabama libraries in a time of racial segregation made international headlines and is at the core of the highly theatrical Alabama Story.
The play premiered in 2015 at Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City and was nominated for the 2016 Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award. By spring 2018, it will have been seen in 18 markets around the country since its premiere. It recently played the Clarence Brown Theatre in Knoxville and is now in rehearsal for a staging by Washington Stage Guild in Washington, DC. (Theater industry members may request a perusal copy here.)
Paul Mason Barnes, the busy regional director who is no stranger to St. Louis Rep (Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Comedy of Errors), will direct Alabama Story on the Rep’s Mainstage Jan. 2-27, 2019. Casting and full creative team will be announced at a later date. The play is part of the final Rep season under longtime artistic director Steven Woolf, who will retire in 2019.
Librarian Emily Reed is today viewed as a hero in the freedom to read movement in the United States. The playwright calls Alabama Story “a censorship drama through the lens of Civil Rights.” The play’s saber-rattling Senator E.W. Higgins is based on real-life state Sen. E.O. Eddins. In addition to “The Rabbits’ Wedding,” the senator sought to remove “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from Alabama library shelves. “Both characters are the moral centers of their respective worlds, and everything they stand for is at risk,” according to the playwright.
Here’s how The Rep bills Alabama Story: “A determined librarian and a segregationist senator face off over an innocent children’s book in 1959 Montgomery. Depicting the marriage of two rabbits — who happen to have different-colored fur — the story has Sen. E.W. Higgins calling for a book ban. But even as the pressure mounts, librarian Emily Wheelock Reed refuses to yield to censorship. Inspired by true events, Alabama Story is a stirring testament to free expression.”
The play friskily places the book’s author and illustrator, Garth Williams, as a kind of narrator and interloper, playing multiple roles in a script that the playwright once said was “a mashup of political thriller, social-justice drama, memory play and romance, with dollops of surprising humor.”
A parallel story of two childhood friends who reunite in Montgomery in 1959 serves as the perfume of Alabama Story. Lily is white, Joshua is black. Revisiting the joy and pain of their shared past, they embody the private tensions that are swirling in the public arena across town.
American Theatre magazine first reported about the play’s “freshly relevant themes” back in 2015, long before our current American moment of polarizing politicians, culture wars, inflammatory racial rhetoric and attacks on civil liberties.
“Alabama Story wants to have the feel of a pop-up book, on the subject of how we treat each other and how character is revealed in times of conflict,” the playwright said.
The 2018-19 Mainstage season of Repertory Theatre of St. Louis — the company’s 52nd season — also includes productions of Evita, A Doll’s House Part 2, A Christmas Story, Oslo and a sixth title to be announced. Its Studio Theatre titles will be announced later.