An ‘Alabama Story’ story: Playwright Kenneth Jones on his play set in the state

Greta Lambert and Alan Knoll in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival production of “Alabama Story” in 2020. Photo by Stewart Edmonds.

Despite Alabama’s rich literary history, you’ll find few plays that are set in the state. There are classics set in Monroeville and Tuscumbia, of course, but once you get past “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Miracle Worker” and “The Little Foxes” (set in a fictional Alabama town, though playwright Lillian Hellman’s family was from Demopolis), there are not many others.

One of the latest is “Alabama Story,” Kenneth Jones’ fact-based but fictional tale about censorship and civil rights. The play is about Emily Wheelock Reed, the state librarian of Alabama who fought censorship and more in 1959 when a state senator wanted to burn “The Rabbits’ Wedding,” a children’s book about a black rabbit marrying a white rabbit.

Jones’ play has been produced at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and other regional theaters around the country, and it recently has been published, meaning more productions are on the way.

Jones was kind enough to answer a few questions about “Alabama Story,” including how it came to be and where it might be going. His answers are wide-ranging, including a lot of interesting insight into how a play gets published and produced.

Can you tell me about the genesis of “Alabama Story”?

Playwright Kenneth Jones with a copy of “The Rabbits’ Wedding.” (Photo by Alex Weisman)

I was checking out the obituary pages of The New York Times in 2000, and my eyes widened when I read about the passing of a retired white librarian whose career included a year in which she was persecuted for protecting a children’s picture book in the Alabama library system. Back in 1959, when Emily Wheelock Reed was the state librarian of Alabama, politicians learned that a book about a white rabbit marrying a black rabbit was in the holdings of the state library system and was being promoted as a quality title. One state senator in particular, Sen. E.O. Eddins of Demopolis, grilled her about her ideology — whether she supported racial segregation — and he called the book pro-integration propaganda. He wanted the book burned and tried to remove her from her position after she refused to give him answers about her views on race. All of this made international headlines and boosted the sales of a book few had paid attention to before this — “The Rabbits’ Wedding” by illustrator Garth Williams, who was best known for his artwork for “Charlotte’s Web,” “Stuart Little” and “Little House on the Prairie.”

Emily Reed’s story leaped out at me as the stuff of a juicy play. The heroes and villains, the tensions and conflicts, the richness of the “big ideas” of that world were so obvious to me as the stuff of drama. The challenge was to make it all not feel too obvious: to find the gray in both sides. I sought to make the hero flawed and the villain sympathetic. Or at least make him complex. We already know censorship is bad, so the fun is finding surprises in a story you think you can predict.

I knew right away that the librarian, the senator and the illustrator would be characters, with Garth Williams playing narrator and multiple characters. I wanted this play to be highly theatrical, like a pop-up picture book. The play employs direct-address to the audience, newspaper items read aloud, a protean actor wearing many hats, a prologue and epilogue, and one shocking moment when characters unrelated to the political firestorm invade the action of a courtroom-like scene in which the librarian is being harassed.

The play is a mix of fact and fiction, correct?

As this true story is essentially about white people fighting each other over issues of censorship related to segregation, I wanted to add something poetic and illustrative of how segregation poisons the lives of both Black and white folks, while preserving the core story. I invented a couple of characters who suggest a “black rabbit and white rabbit” without sitting down too heavily on them as symbols: Lily, who is white, and Joshua, who is Black, were childhood friends who were separated years ago. They reunite by accident in Montgomery the same year as the library events and they unpack who they are and where they’ve been. They change each other. Books and reading become important to their story, which is meant to reflect and refract the political story at the center of the play. I wanted a would-be romance in “Alabama Story.” A storybook romance of sorts. I wanted an intimate conversation between a Black man and a white woman without him becoming the noble Negro — or worse, the angry Black man — and without her becoming the White Savior — or worse, the pitiful broken bigot. It’s a delicate balance.

How does the relationship of Joshua and Lily speak to what you called the “big ideas” of the play?

A central idea of the play is something Emily Reed mentions: “I believe that the free flow of information is the best means to solve the problems of the South, the nation and the world.” She actually said that in real life, and I swiped it. The free exchange of books, ideas, information is a primary tenet of librarianship. That exchange happens over and over in the play, between Lily and Josh and between Emily and the senator and others. The exchange of books and intellectual material changes people’s lives.

Did you come to Alabama during the writing process, for research?

Yes! Since the play is inspired by true events, I felt I needed to walk the halls of the Alabama Public Library Service where Emily worked. I needed to go to Dr. King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, to the Rosa Parks Museum, the voting rights museum on the way to Selma, the antebellum homes of Demopolis, the chambers of the State Capitol. I soaked it all in on a weeklong tour in the summer of 2009. At that time, I interviewed Alabama historians including Georgette Norman, who was then director of the Rosa Parks Museum, and the late Mary Ann Neeley. I heard personal anecdotes from them and others that helped me enrich the world of the play.

I spent days of research in the Alabama State Archives, reading old newspapers. There was a wealth of reporting on Emily’s travails. I stole a byline of a reporter and made him a character in the play — Herschel Cribb. I call him Herschel Webb. Much of the play is set in that beautiful State Archive Building, where Emily’s office was. A historian there took me on a tour and I saw what they think was her office. The Alabama State Library Services moved out downtown Montgomery years ago. But walking up the granite steps and through the marble halls was inspiring, and Emily talks about the space in the play.

“Alabama Story” was performed in Alabama fairly early on, right? Can you tell me about that?

I had a full-time journalism job as I slowly researched and wrote the play over a decade; I was also writing a couple of musicals during that period. On the advice of my director friend Karen Azenberg, when I had a solid draft of “Alabama Story” in late 2012, I pitched the play to Alabama Shakespeare Festival for its Southern Writers Project (it’s now called Southern Writers Festival), under then artistic director Geoffrey Sherman. Karen had worked at ASF before. The literary gatekeeper there at the time, Nancy Rominger, loved the play, but the slot for the spring 2013 SWP reading series was full. By a twist of fate, a writer dropped out, leaving a spot open for me at the last minute. Karen came aboard as director and we were assigned a cast from the existing ASF company that was brilliant.

How did the script change?

I revised the play a lot that week, cutting and sharpening. I cut about 30 minutes out of the play. It was almost three hours long! Listening to the actors, fielding the questions from my director, hearing it over and over led to a better, leaner play. But there was so much work yet to do. Karen would become artistic director of Pioneer Theatre Company in Utah, and in 2013-2014 she gave the play a reading in Salt Lake, where I continued to hack away at it. There was also a New York reading that prompted changes. I tend to write “fat” and then carve away to get to the meat. Good writing is about rewriting, as you know. In 2015, Karen produced the world premiere.

And you had one of Alabama’s best actresses in the lead.

The premiere featured not just a great Alabama actress, but a great American actress: Greta Lambert, a fixture at Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Greta wasn’t free to do the initial reading at ASF in 2013, but we got her for Utah and she later starred in the Montgomery premiere at ASF in 2020, under new artistic director Rick Dildine’s brilliant direction. I had her talent in my brain when I was writing it and snagging her for two productions was a dream come true!

Does the play resonate more in the state where it’s set?

I’ve seen productions of the play on the West Coast, New England, the Midwest and the South, and the responses are pretty uniform — gasps, laughter, tears and leaning into the play and digesting its ideas. I can’t say there’s a specific “Southern response.” There is never one monolithic response to the play from Black or white audiences. At talkbacks for the play, Black theatergoers have asked me for a copy of the script and suggested it be done in high schools so young people can be exposed to this story about how people behave in times of social upheaval. A burly white man in his 40s came up to me following a talkback at Alabama Shakespeare Festival when it finally got fully produced there in 2020. The playgoer shook my hand and said, “I was raised in a racist household.” And he burst into tears. That sort of raw candor and feeling is something that play has aroused in more than one person, and that’s gratifying. I’ve witnessed audiences crying at the end of the play in every market I’ve visited. Racism is an essential American wound. Art should show us who we are and lead us to ask and answer questions about the human experience, right?

Besides the ASF developmental reading in 2013 and the full production in 2020, has it played elsewhere in Alabama?

A scene from “Alabama Story,” a production at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in 2020. Photo by Stewart Edmonds.

There was a beautiful Alabama premiere of the play by Red Mountain Theatre Company in Birmingham in March 2018. Henry Scott directed a fantastic resident cast. It was staged in Red Mountain’s Human Rights New Works Festival, which gives a spotlight to plays about social justice. That staging was later revived for a later booking in Hoover. Red Mountain executive director Keith Cromwell has been a champion of the play and my other work. In 2019, he presented a workshop production of my three-character Florida-set play “Two Henrys.” It was sensitively directed by David Callaghan, a theater professor at the University of Montevallo. Community theaters and high school theaters in the state have requested the “Alabama Story” script, so I hope it has wider life there. There’s a community theater in Demopolis, where some of the action of the play is set. It’d be a kick for it to play there. Demopolis was the hometown of Sen. Eddins, who I renamed as “Senator Higgins,” as I added some fictional but fact-inspired elements to his life story.

In September 2021, Dramatists Play Service published the play, six years after its premiere. What was that process like?

When “Alabama Story” was first produced in Utah in 2015, my dreamy-eyed hope was that I’d snag an agent, a publisher and a second production right away. When I never heard back from publishers and no agents showed interest in me despite having other scripts in the works, I was crestfallen. I wrongly thought these were the markers of being a “success” as a playwright.

I was fortunate that theaters pay attention to what other theaters are producing — and colleagues advocated for the play, too — so it got produced several times in 2016-17, including popular runs at Florida Studio Theatre and Cape Cod’s Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre. I tirelessly pitched the play to companies, directors, artistic directors, literary gatekeepers, and occasionally broke through. A college produced it in my hometown of Detroit.

I’m the son of a salesman, so some of that rubbed off, I guess. Following years of being an advocate for other people’s plays in my former career as a theater journalist, I simply used that natural talent to get word out about my own play — being my own agent, in effect. Sometimes my pitches would pay off several years later: About four years after I pitched the play to artistic director Steve Woolf at Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, he finally produced it 2019, in his final season as artistic director there. It helped that director Paul Mason Barnes, a Rep veteran, was a fan of the play and pushed for it. It takes a village. Faith and patience. It was a big hit at the Rep.

How did Dramatists Play Service get it?

In early 2020, as the world of theater was being silenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, Jeff Keilholtz, a playwright I knew from sharing a bill in a new play series in 2014, contacted me and asked if “Alabama Story” had been published yet; he’d followed the progress of the play — more than 30 productions at the time — through my incessant postings about it on social media. It turned out, Jeff was a new VP of licensing for Broadway Licensing, a publisher whose holdings included Playscripts and later Dramatists Play Service. He had faith in the title, asked me aboard, and I signed with Broadway Licensing. Within weeks of “Alabama Story” appearing in the Broadway Licensing/DPS/Playscripts catalog in late summer 2021, five theater companies — a mix of civic, amateur, high school and Equity troupes — had booked the play for productions in 2022-23. And maybe best of all: I no longer have to write up my own contracts, which frees me up to work on new plays and musicals.

Have you held the published script in your hands?

As of this interview, in early 2022, the manuscript of the play is available from DPS in “ePub format,” which means a PDF of my copy of the typewritten script. We’re still waiting for the hardcopy of the play to be published. The play is about librarians and books and libraries, and lots of librarians are eager to have the script on their shelves. Me, too. I can’t wait to have it in my hands and to see it on the shelves of Drama Book Shop in New York City.

And what’s next for you?

I am a Midwestern writer who never thought he’d be writing about the Deep South, and certainly didn’t think I’d be writing about it twice. But I stumbled on another real place in Mississippi, and when I was commissioned to write a new play for Florida Studio Theatre, this jumped to the forefront. I wrote it with Greta Lambert and her actor husband Rodney Clark in mind. FST has given me some developmental readings. We’ll see what happens. It’s three acts long and deals with a white family’s popular business and its promotion of systemic racism. It’s funny and brutal and ultimately filled with hope. It’s had three different titles along the way. Maybe I should just own my passion for Southern experiences and call it “Mississippi Story.”

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