Seven years after it had its first developmental reading by Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery, Alabama Story, the highly theatrical drama that pits a state senator against the state librarian in the capital city in 1959, will finally get a full production by ASF in spring 2020, in the company’s 48th season. Spiked with humor, heartbreak and hope, the nationally acclaimed play about censorship, civil rights and American character, was first presented in barebones form at ASF’s 2013 Southern Writers Project Festival of New Plays, where playwright Kenneth Jones was in residence in Montgomery to grow the script.
The new, fully staged March 5-22, 2020, production in ASF’s 262-seat Octagon Theatre will be directed by artistic director Rick Dildine, who announced title in the coming season on July 25.
The staging will feature ASF veteran actress and associate artistic director Greta Lambert as real-life librarian Emily Wheelock Reed, who protected a children’s picture book that faced challenges from state politicians. Lambert appeared in the play’s Salt Lake City world premiere in 2015. (Her husband, Rodney Clark, the veteran Alabama actor known for titanic roles of King Lear, Scrooge and Bear Bryant at ASF, played formidable Senator Higgins in the original ASF reading.) Theater industry folk may request a free perusal copy of the script here.
“I had seen Greta’s breathtaking work in a regional production of Doubt in the 2000s, and when my play was chosen for the ASF reading in 2013 — knowing that she was a resident artist at ASF — I requested her for the role of Emily Reed,” Jones said. “But she was already booked for another reading in the Festival of New Plays. The fact that she was later in the world premiere and is now in the Montgomery premiere represents two big dreams come true for a playwright. A great American actress, whose artistic home is Montgomery, will finally play this inspiring forgotten heroine who lived and worked in the state capital during the fraught 1950s.”
Here’s how ASF bills the six-actor Alabama Story: “In 1950s Montgomery, Alabama, a fight over a controversial children’s book — in which a black rabbit marries a white rabbit — pits one courageous librarian against a segregationist state senator. Meanwhile, childhood friends reunite, only to be caught up in the political and racial tensions of the time. Inspired by true events, this drama explores tests of character and emotions that reshaped our nation.”
Alabama-bred actor Billy Hutto will play the roles of assistant librarian Thomas Franklin. Additional casting for Alabama Story will be announced. The production’s design team includes set and lighting designer Brian Sidney Bembridge, costume designer Kathleen Geldard and sound designer Melanie Chen Cole.
The play’s primary setting is Montgomery, with references to many iconic settings in the capital city, including the State Capitol, the State Archive Building, the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, the now-gone Empire Theatre, the Juliette Hampton Morgan Memorial Library, the now-repurposed Jefferson Davis Hotel, Oak Park, Jackson Hospital, the old Hale Hospital and more. The city of Demopolis, west of Montgomery, is also conjured in the play, as the hometown of Senator Higgins, who is inspired by real-life state Senator E.O. Eddins, of Demopolis. The city is also the hometown of Lily and Joshua, two characters whose fictional parallel story reflects the climate of the time.
In 2015, Alabama Story received its world premiere by Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City, where artistic director Karen Azenberg — who had directed the earlier ASF reading — directed. The play has since been seen in more than 20 productions around the country. It was a finalist in the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference and a nominee for the Steinberg/American Theatre Critics New Play Award.
The first-ever reading of Alabama Story was presented in the 2013 ASF Southern Writers Project Festival of New Plays, now called Southern Writers Festival, in the intimate thrust theater, the Octagon, where the full staging will also surface in 2020, making it one of the most physically enveloping productions to date. (In addition to the Octagon, the ASF complex also includes a Mainstage space, an outdoor theater in the Shakespeare Garden as well as a unique and intimate “found space” dubbed The Other Place, located in the scene shop, where the world premiere of Susan Ferrara’s Buzz will be presented in August 2019.)
Jones said, “At the 2013 ASF reading’s talkback, the moderator asked, ‘This play is set in the so-called ‘Deep South of the imagination.’ What does that mean to you?’ An elderly theatergoer replied reflectively, ‘I don’t know about the Deep South of the imagination, but this is the Montgomery that I grew up in.’ That was deeply gratifying to me, to have been able to capture something authentic. But it was also useful to hear others say how surprised they were by the complexity and twists in the journey of Senator Higgins, the so-called ‘villain’ of the story. I wasn’t interested in a Southern caricature or stereotype. As with the other characters, I wanted to explore their hearts, minds and roots, and make them complex, vulnerable and compelling.”
In May 2000, while reading the New York Times, playwright Kenneth Jones came across an article about Emily Wheelock Reed, the former state librarian of Alabama (technically, her title was “director of the Alabama Public Library Service”), who had been challenged by a segregationist politician in 1959. Alabama State Senator E.O. Eddins demanded that a children’s picture book — Garth Williams’ “The Rabbits’ Wedding,” about a rabbit with black fur marrying a rabbit with white fur — be purged from the shelves of Alabama libraries on the grounds that it promoted racial integration. Their conflict was reported worldwide. Before Jones finished reading the article, he knew this was an idea for a play, and that illustrator Garth Williams (who created art for “Little House on the Prairie,” “Charlotte’s Web,” “Stuart Little” and more) would become a character, playing multiple roles.
Jones wrote in a playwright’s note, “Emily Reed’s story was widely documented in newspapers and magazines at the time, so a lot of source material existed, allowing me draw from and expand upon actual language and public personalities. In fact, the play’s most outrageous proclamations from the formidable politician (renamed Senator Higgins) are direct quotes from the man who used to be known as ‘Big Ed.’ And when I read Emily’s statement that ‘the free flow of information is the best means to solve the problems of the South, the nation and the world,’ I was inspired by the grandeur and universality of the sentence: This is a story about access, a basic human right. Little did I know that the words ‘free flow of information’ make up one of the foundational tenets of librarianship itself.”
He added, “On research trips to Alabama, it came into focus that I was writing a play about censorship rather than civil rights, although the two are certainly tangled in Alabama Story. This was a tale about white people challenging each other — and seeking to protect each other — in a time of extraordinary social change. And about how talking to one other, face to face, about difficult matters is on that continuum of ‘the free flow of information.’ Conversations matter.”
Leading up to the Montgomery premiere, Alabama Story will have been seen in 22 markets around the country (including its Alabama premiere by Red Mountain Theatre Company in Birmingham).
“The play grew enormously in its first ASF reading, and it went through a number of revisions as I learned more from its subsequent productions around the nation,” Jones said. “Those stagings, beautifully realized, represented a kind of preview period for the play. I learned from seeing productions, and made clarifying changes over the years, leading to a definitive version of the script that I’m thrilled will finally play ASF.”
It will get its Indiana premiere in October 2019 at Actors Theatre of Indiana.
Here’s what the St. Louis Post Dispatch said about the play: “At a time when intolerance is on the upswing and empathy is under siege, Alabama Story is just the play we need.”
Here’s what The Washington Post said about the play: “An Alabama Story that has national relevance. 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 2019-20 season of Alabama Shakespeare Festival opens with Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline directed by Ron OJ Parson; The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson, directed by Greta Lambert; the a cappella World War One musical All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 (directed by Melissa Rain Anderson); ASF’s fellowship company in Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat and And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the Story of Anne Frank by James Still, directed by Addie Gorlin; Mat Smart’s The Agitators, directed by Logan Vaughn; Ruby: The Story of Ruby Bridges by Christina Ham, directed by Sarah Thornton (a collaboration with Montgomery Public Schools); Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, adapted and directed by Greta Lambert in the Shakespeare Garden, and The Comedy of Errors, directed in a six-actor version by Sean Graney on the main stage; Lauren Gunderson’s I and You, directed by Rick Dildine; and two summer 2020 musicals: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, adapted by Douglas Carter Beane, and the hit-filled Million Dollar Quartet, with book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, about early rock icons recording at Sun Records, directed by David Ruttura. Readings of new plays are also expected in the season. The plays Cry Havoc and Stages will be presented as part of Southern Writers Festival. Get more details about the season here.
In ASF’s 48th season in 2019-20, expect “13 productions that explore stories of contemporary culture, heroic revolutionaries, societal transformation, and lyrical legends,” according to the July 25 announcement. “Captivating, collaborative storytelling remains at the heart of ASF.”
“The stories we’ve chosen this season are inspired by our community, locally and regionally,” said Dildine. “Theatre is local and should reflect the dialogue and culture of its people. This season looks at our past, considers our present, and offers ideas for our future. With each season, our goal is to build community by engaging, entertaining, and inspiring people with transformative theatrical performances and compelling educational and community programs.”
Check out the feature about the professional and personal relationship of Alabama natives Rodney Clark and Greta Lambert, from the publication Prime Montgomery.
ASF 2019-20 subscriptions are on sale now. Visit asf.net. Single tickets will go on sale on Aug. 15.
Alabama Shakespeare Festival is a not-for-profit organization under the leadership of artistic director Rick Dildine and executive director Todd Schmidt. As a beloved Alabama arts institution, ASF broadens the cultural identity of the South by producing Shakespeare, contemporary plays, musicals, and exciting new works that focus on the Southern experience. A leader in education and outreach, ASF serves more than 40,000 students annually with artistic programming. ASF is supported by grants from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Alabama Shakespeare Festival, designated as the State Theatre of Alabama, “builds community by engaging, entertaining, and inspiring people with transformative theatrical performances and compelling educational and community programs.”
Alabama Shakespeare Festival was founded in a high school auditorium in Anniston in 1972, designated as the State Theatre of Alabama in 1977, and its $21.5 million performing arts complex in Montgomery was built in 1985 in Blount Cultural Park, eight miles east of downtown Montgomery. The park — inspired the English countryside, with rolling hills, ponds, statuary and swans — is also home to Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts and the Hannah Daye Ridling Bark Park.