Pioneer Theatre Company will give Kenneth Jones’ Alabama Story its world premiere in January 2015, artistic director Karen Azenberg and managing director Chris Lino announced on April 19. The major resident Equity theatre company of Salt Lake City, UT, will present the highly theatrical fact-inspired drama, set in “the Deep South of the imagination,” Jan. 9-24.
Alabama Story — about a clash of wills between a librarian and a segregationist politician in 1959 Montgomery, AL — was recently named a finalist in the 2014 National Playwrights Conference of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut. It was judged to be in the top 4 percent of 1,200 scripts submitted to the annual competition.
Pioneer presented public readings of the six-actor play (4M, 2F) in Salt Lake City April 4-5, 2014, as the third title in its inaugural Play-By-Play new works series. Azenberg directed the reading, picking up from her earlier direction of the title when it was seen in Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s Southern Writers’ Project Festival of New Plays in May 2013. Both developmental opportunities prompted changes and rewrites in the script.
Alabama Story will play PTC’s mainstage home at the 932-seat Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre on the campus of the University of Utah. Casting and designers will be announced. Here’s Pioneer’s 2014-15 season announcement. The slate also includes The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee; One Man, Two Guvnors; a two-day concert engagement of The Rocky Horror Show; Peter and the Starcatcher directed by Jenn Thompson; The Crucible; I Hate Hamlet; and The Music Man. The season will also see the return of the Play-By-Play new play reading series, which helped launch Alabama Story.
Jones explained the genesis of Alabama Story in an interview published in the blog section of Pioneer’s website: “I was reading the New York Times and I came across the obituary of Emily Wheelock Reed, an 89-year-old former librarian who had been put on the grill by a segregationist state senator named E.O. Eddins in 1959 Alabama. He wanted a controversial children’s picture book — Garth Williams’ ‘The Rabbits’ Wedding,’ about a black rabbit marrying a white rabbit — purged from the shelves of Alabama libraries. He later objected to other books that were being promoted by the library. And, later still, he and others sought to legislate Reed out of her job.”
He continued, “Strong characters and richly contrasting conflicts rarely just fall into my lap, but that’s exactly what happened when I read this obituary. Opposites — male and female, black and white, insider and outsider, Southern and Northern, child and adult, innocence and ugliness — were immediately evident in this slice of American history, and instantly I recognized the building blocks for a play. I took notes and began research.”
Although the play is inspired by true events that made international headlines, Jones said that he “did not seek to write a dry, stodgy docudrama.”
He explained, “I wanted to create an artistic impression of the truth, an experience that is slightly magical and draws on theatrical conventions that I have loved as a theatergoer over the years — children’s theater, courtroom thriller, historical drama, romance, memory play. The best examples of these exciting forms — as with children’s picture books — don’t preach, lecture and browbeat. They are meant to entertain the mind, heart and imagination.”
Alabama Story “is ultimately about people who are passionate about books,” he added. “The play embraces people who pass books forward — the act is heroic.” Maybe the play’s heroine said it best: “I believe that reading rescues people from the shadows,” Emily Reed says in the play.