Actors Theatre of Indiana co-founders Cynthia Collins and Don Farrell face off as foes in the Indiana premiere of Kenneth Jones’ six-actor social justice drama Alabama Story, the true story of a Hoosier native who became state librarian in Alabama in the 1950s only to be attacked for her commitment to the freedom to read. Jane Unger, founding artistic director of Profile Theatre Project in Portland, OR, directs the production, running Oct. 25-Nov. 17 at ATI’s home in The Studio Theater in Carmel, IN, 15 miles north of Indianapolis.
Collins and Farrell co-founded Actors Theatre of Indiana with fellow actress Judy Fitzgerald, who will also play a role written by Jones this season when the ATI inaugural Lab Series of new plays offers a public reading of the playwright’s comedy Hollywood, Nebraska on Nov. 5.
In Alabama Story, Collins plays Emily Wheelock Reed, who was raised in Culver, IN, and educated at Indiana University. As director of the Alabama Public Library Service in 1959, Reed took heat for protecting a children’s picture book about a black rabbit marrying a white rabbit. State senator E.O. Eddins, played by Farrell, whose character in the play is called E.W. Higgins, wanted the book pulled from the shelves (and also burned), citing what he said was a clear pro-integration motive on the part of author-illustrator Garth Williams.
The Actors Theatre of Indiana company of Alabama Story also features Paul Tavianini as Garth Williams, Maeghan Looney as Lily Whitfield, Cameron Bass as Joshua Moore and Samuel L. Wick as Thomas Franklin.
The production team includes production stage manager Kevin Casey, production assistant/wardrobe Brianne Chalfant, scenic designer/technical director Bernie Killian, lighting designer Quinten James, prop designer Amanda Pagan-Pecora, costume designer Kyle Andrew Schellinger (who designed the Tennessee premiere of the play at Clarence Brown Theatre), wig designer Andrew Elliot, composer/sound designer Barry G. Funderburg (who returns to the play following his work on director Paul Mason Barnes’ staging at Repertory Theatre of St. Louis), dialect coach Karaline Feller, sound board operator Matthew Cunningham and audio engineer Zach Rosing. Learn more about the work and career of director Jane Unger here.
ATI bills Alabama Story this way: “Step into the Deep South of the Imagination. An Indiana native who becomes state librarian of Alabama finds her life and livelihood at risk when a controversial children’s book crosses her desk. The innocent tale of a white rabbit marrying a black rabbit is angering politicians in the Civil Rights era. But will Emily Reed give in to demands to have the book burned? Meet history’s forgotten hero of free speech in the Indiana premiere of a fact-inspired, highly theatrical new American play brimming with humor, heart and humanity.”
The highly theatrical play will get at least eight regional productions in 2019-20. The Indiana premiere falls within the 60th anniversary year of the 1959 events that saw Emily Reed publicly attacked by segregationist politicians after she refused to state her views on segregation and sought to defend “The Rabbits’ Wedding” and other books targeted by white supremacists. Garth Williams wrote and illustrated the gentle children’s book. He is best known for illustrating “Stuart Little,” “Charlotte’s Web” and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books.
Alabama Story, which has had more than 20 productions around the country since its 2015 premiere by Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City, is set in what the playwright calls “the Deep South of the imagination.” It is at turns a political potboiler, a romance, a memory play and a humor-laced historical drama.
“I’m thrilled that Emily Reed is ‘coming home’ to Indiana,” Jones said. “This is where she initially built muscle as a librarian, first in Culver and later graduating with honors from Indiana University. Her Indiana roots are referenced in the play as an illustration of the great opposites that helped this story explode in the headlines: north and south, insider and outsider, male and female, liberal and conservative. More than a tale of censorship and Civil Rights, Alabama Story is a look at American character and how it is revealed in times of social change. Emily Reed spills over with good character, and I’m looking forward to helping introduce her as the still little-known home-state hero that she was.”
Jones first learned of Reed in 2000, when he read her obituary in The New York Times. He said he instantly knew the story of her troubled year as state librarian in Montgomery was the stuff of a play. “I view the play as a censorship drama through the lens of Civil Rights,” Jones said. “This is a play about what Dr. King called white people of good will who contributed to the cause of Civil Rights, and in this case it’s a white woman in power who is very much at risk for standing her ground.”
Offering context and complement to the censorship story, the play also explores the uneasy reunion of former childhood friends — Lily and Joshua, a white woman and black man — who meet in Montgomery in 1959 and unpack events of their shared past, giving sinew to the world of segregation and its victims, participants and healers.
In 2018, The Washington Post called it “an Alabama Story that has national relevance,” adding, “the play feels timely, resonating with this era’s racial tensions, the ‘she persisted’ meme and continuing controversy over the Old South’s legacy. The topicality of Alabama Story infuses a theatrical moment that feels spontaneous yet intriguingly layered.”
The St. Louis Post Dispatch said, “at a time when intolerance is on the upswing and empathy is under siege, Alabama Story is just the play we need.”
Actors Theatre of Indiana is an SPT4 Equity theatre respected for its buoyant productions of musicals. The production of Alabama Story represents the company’s commitment to bringing plays — especially area premieres — to its passionate central Indiana audience.