Alabama Story, the acclaimed historical drama by Michigan-bred playwright Kenneth Jones, will make its Wolverine State premiere Sept. 22-Oct. 9 in a staging by The Theatre Company of the University of Detroit Mercy, the lauded troupe that for 45 seasons has mixed students and professionals in award-winning hybrid-cast productions. The author will be in residence for late rehearsals and the first two weeks of the run, which will be presented at the 130-seat Marlene Boll Theatre at the Boll Family YMCA in downtown Detroit.
The fact-inspired play — percolating with many Detroit references and resonances — is set in “the Deep South of the imagination” where bigger-than-life characters battle over censorship and civil rights questions. Rehearsals under director Jamie Warrow began Aug. 18.
Detroit Alabama Story performances will play 7:30 PM Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 3 PM Sundays, Sept. 22-Oct. 9. Order tickets online now, or reserve by calling (313) 993-3270 noon-5 PM.
This marks Alabama Story’s fourth regional production in 2016 — and the first to break into the university market — since its 2015 premiere, when it was nominated for the Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award. (Industry members are invited to request a free perusal copy of the script.)
The highly theatrical drama is set in Montgomery, AL, in 1959, as the civil rights movement is in full blossom. In it, a gentle children’s book with an apparent hidden message stirs the passions of a segregationist State Senator and a no-nonsense State Librarian in a time of great social change.
Despite pressure from Sen. E.W. Higgins, librarian Emily Wheelock Reed refuses to remove the controversial picture book — the story of a white rabbit marrying a black rabbit. Her stand prompts a conflict that would make international headlines.
Meanwhile, a reflective tale of small-town childhood friends — an African-American man and a white woman, reunited in adulthood in Montgomery that same year — provides private counterpoint to the public events of the play.
In one of the play’s many presentational flourishes, the world and people of Alabama Story are introduced by Garth Williams, the illustrator of the book, “The Rabbits’ Wedding.” Williams even jumps into several roles. The artist (1912-1996) is best known for his illustrations in “Charlotte’s Web,” “Stuart Little” and “Little House on the Prairie.” “The Rabbits’ Wedding” is still in print.
The “local angle” of the Motown premiere is not limited to the author’s roots in the metro Detroit area, where he was raised in Southfield and Beverly Hills and later lived as a free-lance writer in Grosse Pointe before moving to New York City. There is additional Detroit-area history embedded in the script: the play’s moral center, real-life Alabama State Librarian Emily Wheelock Reed, worked for the Detroit Public Library in the 1940s after graduating from The University of Michigan; and the fictional African American civil rights worker in the play, Joshua Moore, lives in Detroit, where he works for Vernors Ginger Ale and makes pilgrimages to his home state of Alabama.
In collaboration with the author, the UDM Theatre Company production expands the cast size of the play from six to eight, allowing more chances for student actors to tackle roles. The company features three professional guest actors and five UDM acting students; the company’s longtime mission is to give students a chance to grow by working side by side with seasoned professionals. Alabama Story opens The Theatre Company’s 46th season.
The cast includes guest artists Andrew Papa as Garth Williams and others; Melissa Beckwith as Emily Reed; and Daniel Jaroslaw as Sen. E.W. Higgins; with Sidney Mains as Lily Whitfield; DeShawn King as Joshua Moore; Alexander Kendziuk as assistant librarian Thomas Franklin; Christian Plonka as reporter Herschel Webb; and Dalton Hahn as Announcer and Montgomerians.
The production team includes dialect director Andrew Papa, stage manager Savanah Wright, assistant stage manager Avera Smith, scenic and costume designer Melinda Pacha (who is also The Theatre Company’s artistic director), lighting designer Amy Schneider and technical director Anthony Petrucci.
The Marlene Boll Theatre at the Boll Family YMCA is located at 1401 Broadway in downtown Detroit. Check here for parking information.
Before he was a playwright, Jones was a theatre reporter and critic for newspapers in metro Detroit 1985-1998, first at The Oakland Press in Pontiac, MI, and later serving as a reporter and critic for The Detroit News for a decade that included four seasons as chief theatre critic. He moved to New York City in 1998.
“I came of age as a theatregoer seeing adventurous productions produced by The Theatre Company in the 1980s and 1990s,” Jones said. “It’s where I first encountered the work of Jane Martin, Shelagh Delaney, Romulus Linney, Bertolt Brecht, Edward Albee, Joe Orton and so many others. I am honored to be invited into this tradition of unique storytelling, where theatrical invention, social justice themes and ambitious bigger-than-life characters are embraced, and where an ‘independent’ aesthetic is celebrated.”
In New York City, Jones concentrated on writing plays and musicals (joining the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop) while serving as a reporter and editor at Playbill.com for 15 years before focusing solely on dramatic writing. He is a member of The Dramatists Guild and The 72nd Street Gang Playwrights Collective.
In 2015, Alabama Story had its world premiere by Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City in a well-reviewed staging that became the company’s highest grossing new play ever. It was a finalist in the National Playwrights Conference of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in 2014.
By the time of the Detroit launch, Alabama Story will have been produced in 2016 at Florida Studio Theatre (where it broke a spring box office record), Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre in Massachusetts and Peninsula Players in Wisconsin.
Jones’ play Two Henrys, a drama about Midwestern temperaments set in the age of marriage equality, had a February 2016 reading in Pioneer Theatre Company’s Play-By-Play series in Utah and was a semi-finalist in the 2016 National Playwrights Conference of the Eugene O’Neill Center. His new play Hollywood, Nebraska, was seen in a staged reading in June 2016 in TACT/The Actors Company Theatre’s NewTACTics New Play Festival.