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Newly mounted Utah play tells an old story about books and racial fears

First Published      Last Updated Jan 13 2015 07:46 pm

Stage » “Alabama Story” uses a censorship skirmish to explore a tale of books, ideas and racial fears.

Playwright Kenneth Jones found the main character for his drama "Alabama Story" when he read an obituary that outlined the career of librarian Emily W. Reed.

Reed died in 1980 at age 89. Her New York Times obituary recounted the story of a 1959 standoff between a segregationist state senator who ordered her, then the head of Alabama library system, to remove from the shelves "The Rabbits' Wedding," a children's story about a white rabbit marrying a black rabbit. What happened next provided the stuff of real-life drama, Jones says.

On one level, "Alabama Story" is a period story about censorship and segregation in Montgomery, yet it's also a more universal love story about books and memory. Jones says he hopes the story will remind theatergoers of their roots, as well as the librarian or teacher who might have first passed on a beloved book. "I hope it's a universal play that's soaked in some Southern perfume," says Jones, a Michigan-reared, New York-based playwright and arts journalist.

Jones is in town for the world premiere of "Alabama Story," which plays Jan. 9-24 at Pioneer Theatre Company, the first full production to grow out of the company's new Play-by-Play development series.

"Alabama Story" is set in 1959, yet its racial themes make the drama seem urgently relevant during a year when protests have spilled onto American streets after a string of deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers. The production also coincides with the 50th anniversaries of landmark American legislation, including the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

Some of the characters' lines are drawn directly from 1959 news accounts of "The Rabbits' Wedding" incident, such as when Emily Reed states that a library should contain information addressing all sides of a question. Or when Sen. E.W. Higgins (played by Broadway veteran actor William Parry) states: "There is no room for any other viewpoint in the South but ours." Jones conducted extensive research, but the playwright says he freely mixed fiction and nonfiction to craft the stage drama.

But summarizing the political questions of "Alabama Story" doesn't do justice to the story's heart. The play foregrounds the story of the powerful senator and the librarian who stands up to him at the risk of losing her job. As Jones describes them, they are "two American characters fighting for their way of life."

Serving as a dramatic counterpoint are the ongoing encounters between a white woman, Lily (Kate Middleton returns to Pioneer after her role as Jo Galloway in last year's "A Few Good Men"), and a black man, Joshua (played by Samuel Ray Gates), whose mother worked for Lily's family. The pair were childhood friends in a small Alabama town who share differing memories of a time infused with the taste of lemonade and raisin cake. As adults, they share the stories of their very different lives through their connections to another classic book, the Bible.

Lily and Joshua's story might be entirely imagined, but it serves to anchor the real-life drama of the censorship plotline.

"It reminds us that there were these big historical things going on, but then there were other personal stories and events as people experienced change in the world they knew," says Karen Azenberg, PTC artistic director, who is directing the premiere.

"Alabama Story" is a story about oppositional forces, about the contrasts between men and women, blacks and whites, insiders and outsiders, Southerners and Northerners, children and adults. It's a story about how where you come from affects how you see the world. It's also a story about "how character is tested in times of social crises and times of extraordinary change," says Jones, which is what links the period drama to contemporary headlines of racial conflict.

The play's unusual female lead is an unmarried 1950s woman who can't be simply summarized as a mother figure or love interest. She's fierce, says Azenberg, who worked with Jones to shape the play through staged readings at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and last spring at Pioneer.

Emily Reed isn't gushy, agrees Greta Lambert, who is creating the character. Lambert, a Birmingham native who works as the education director at the Alabama Shakespeare Company, was last seen at PTC as Sister Aloysius in the 2007 production of "Doubt." Jones says he loved Lambert's portrayal in the production, which led him to write the character of Emily Reed with her in mind.

"We have an expectation sometimes in pop culture that women characters are going to be soft and romantic," Jones says. Instead, he considers Emily Reed a before-her-time professional woman who exhibits the toughness and vulnerability of Jane Craig, Holly Hunter's news producer in the 1987 film "Broadcast News."

Jones drew upon a variety of dramatic genres to construct the framework of the play, which includes a scene with the tension of a courtroom thriller as well as a "Romeo and Juliet"-like star-crossed love story. Then he gave dramatic voice to "The Rabbits' Wedding" author Garth Williams, known for his illustrations on such classics as the "Little House on the Prairie" series and "Charlotte's Web."

"I wanted a children's author to jump up and break the fourth wall," Jones says. "You can't do this in a movie. He jumps off the page like a puff-up children's book."





The drama of ‘Alabama Story’

Set in 1959, Kenneth Jones’ play (receiving its world-premiere production) weaves together public and private stories about books, specifically one sweet children’s book, “The Rabbits’ Wedding.” The story of the wedding of a black rabbit and a white rabbit makes a segregationist senator want to stage a book burning, while a bold librarian risks her job to keep the book on the shelf.

When » Jan. 9-24: Monday-Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday matinees, 2 p.m.

Where » Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City

Tickets » $25-$44 in advance; $5 more day of show; half-price tickets for K-12 students for Monday and Tuesday shows; at 801-581-6961, or pioneertheatre.org

Also » The company will hold a talk-back after the 2 p.m. matinee on Jan. 17, with playwright Kenneth Jones; director Karen Azenberg; Wanda Huffacker, Utah Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee chair; and Leah Farrell, of the ACLU.

Reception » Emily Reed, the librarian whose story inspired the play, was a charter member of the American Library Association’s Freedom to Read Foundation, now in its 45th year. The Utah Library Association will host a reception at 5 p.m. Jan. 17 at the S.J. Quinney Law Library. Details at www.ftrf.org/event/FTRF45_SLC.