Alabama Story, Kenneth Jones’ new play set in “The Deep South of the Imagination,” will get its latest developmental step March 31-April 5 in Pioneer Theatre Company’s inaugural Play-By-Play reading series in Salt Lake City. The six-actor drama, inspired by true events, will be heard in three public presentations featuring a Utah-based cast April 4-5.
PTC artistic director Karen Azenberg — who directed Alabama Story’s May 2013 developmental reading in Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s Southern Writers Project — directs the fresh staged reading, with the playwright in residence in Utah. The new draft reflects changes made following the ASF reading and a later private reading last summer in New York City.
Here’s how Pioneer bills the new play: “In 1959 Alabama, a segregationist state senator wants a controversial children’s book purged from the state library, but a fearless librarian refuses, putting both of their worlds at risk in a time of extraordinary social change. Inspired by real events, Alabama Story is a highly theatrical new play about tests of character in the Deep South of the Imagination.”
In recent weeks, Play-By-Play gave voice to Jessica Provenz’s True Art and Jeff Talbott’s A Public Education. This is Pioneer’s first concentrated initiative to develop multiple new American plays in a weeklong rehearsal-and-public-reading format.
The PTC Play-By-Play cast of Alabama Story features Colleen Baum (as the librarian), Carleton Bluford, Christopher DuVal, Michael S. Johnson, Max Robinson (as the senator) and Emilia Stawicki. The stage manager is Mary P. Costello.
Jones first learned of the story of beleaguered Alabama librarian Emily Wheelock Reed when he read her obituary in The New York Times. “Strong characters and richly contrasting conflicts rarely just fall into my lap, but that’s exactly what happened when I opened the newspaper and read the obituary,” Jones said.
His research included two trips to Alabama (to Montgomery and Demopolis, the settings of the play), where he spoke with local librarians and historians, toured historic sites, searched the collection of the Alabama State Department of Archives and History and walked the same halls where the librarian and the senator worked in 1959.
In 1959, Reed was director of Alabama Public Library Service in Montgomery, serving as the state’s chief librarian. A local segregationist newspaper objected to a children’s book in the library’s holdings, and the concern caught the ear of a pro-segregation state senator named E.O. Eddins.
The picture book, “The Rabbits’ Wedding” by Garth Williams, portrays the frolicsome friendship and gentle marriage between a white rabbit and a black rabbit. The senator wanted the book taken off of the shelves; the librarian faced a choice that endangered her job and perhaps her very existence.
“Opposites were immediately evident in this slice of American history, and instantly I recognized the building blocks for a play,” Jones said. “I knew very early in the process that I didn’t want to write a dry docudrama. Taking a cue from children’s literature and children’s theatre, I sought ways for the story to leap off of the page and shake up the theatregoer’s imagination while staying true to the essence of the history. I started by placing Garth Williams himself as narrator — and frisky utility player in other roles. I commingled fictional characters with real people and gave them shared history in a time of extraordinary social change.”
Artist-writer Garth Williams is widely known for his illustrations for “Little House on the Prairie,” “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little.” The controversy about his apparent political message — the advocacy of interracial marriage — in “The Rabbits’ Wedding” made international headlines. He denied that he was seeking to send a message with his images of contrasting-color bunny rabbits. Read his obituary here.
Kenneth Jones is a playwright, librettist, lyricist and journalist. His O. Henry-inspired musical Voice of the City (with music by Elaine Chelton) was first presented in The York Theatre Company’s Developmental Reading Series Off-Broadway, followed by a workshop produced by The Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton, OH (both presentations directed and choreographed by Karen Azenberg). His musical Naughty/Nice, written with composer Gerald Stockstill, was seen in Manhattan concerts at The Players Theatre, TACT Studio, Ars Nova and Caroline’s On Broadway. It was a semi-finalist in the National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s Festival of New Musicals. For their theatre songs, Stockstill and Jones are the recipients of the 2010 Dottie Burman Songwriting Award from the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MAC). He is a member of the Dramatists Guild, BMI and the advanced BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. His work as a journalist includes 15 years as a leading writer and editor at Playbill.com and 10 years as a feature writer, theatre reporter and critic for many publications, including The Detroit News. Visit ByKennethJones.com.
PTC artistic director Karen Azenberg, who created the Play-By-Play series, directs the reading. Originally from New York, her work there includes Lyrics and Lyricists (92nd St. Y), Blocks (a collaboration with Jonathan Larson), Prom Queens Unchained, and choreography for Richard Greenberg’s The Dazzle (Roundabout). Other credits include national tours of Carousel and Brigadoon, Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor (regional theatre premiere at Geva), West Side Story (over 15 productions; Drama-Logue Award for Outstanding Choreography), A Christmas Memory (Alabama Shakespeare Festival), and Same Time Next Year (Indiana Repertory Theatre). This is her second season as PTC artistic director.
Sponsors of the Play-By-Play series include Sandi Behnken, The Bireley Foundation, Lee and Audrey Hollar, Michael and Jan Pazzi, The University of Utah Department of Theatre, and The Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
The three readings are scheduled for 8 PM April 4 and 2 & 8 PM April 5 at Dumke Auditorium, Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Campus Center Drive on the campus of the University of Utah. A talkback will follow the Saturday matinee.
Current Pioneer season ticket holders may purchase tickets for $5 per ticket. Non-season ticket holders may purchase tickets for $10. All tickets are general admission. Individual tickets may be purchased through the PTC Box Office by calling (801) 581-6961 or going online.