April 2018 marked a publishing milestone related to a colorful, ugly footnote that touches a variety of American subjects, from children’s literature to Civil Rights to censorship to librarianship to freedom of expression and the freedom to read. On April 30, 1958, Harper Bros. published “The Rabbits’ Wedding,” a children’s picture book many people had never heard of until it was criticized by lawmakers in the Deep South. The book depicts a rabbit with white fur marrying a rabbit with black fur. A librarian who protected the book in Montgomery, Alabama, became the target of politicians who saw the tale as supportive of racial integration.
A firestorm that erupted over the book a year after it first appeared is the basis for my six-actor, one-set play Alabama Story, which by spring 2020 will have been produced in at least 27 markets around the nation. [Editor’s note: By early 2023, the play has been produced in more than 40 markets and is licensed and published by Dramatists Play Service.] The year 2019 marks the 60th anniversary of the events of the fact-inspired drama, filled with what American Theatre magazine called “freshly relevant themes.”
[If you are reading this article in 2023 or beyond, check out this more up-to-date piece about the history of the picture book that inspired my play.]
The Washington Post called Alabama Story a play with “national relevance.” The St. Louis Post Dispatch wrote, “at a time when intolerance is on the upswing and empathy is under siege, Alabama Story is just the play we need.” It will play Alabama Shakespeare Festival in March 2020, in the town where the action is set.
The year 2019 marks the yearlong 60th anniversary of the persecution of Indiana-bred librarian Emily Wheelock Reed. (The Indiana premiere is being presented by Actors Theatre of Indiana in Carmel, Indiana, Oct. 25-Nov. 17, 2019.) The play, which Repertory Theatre of St. Louis billed as “a stirring testament to free expression,” takes place over the course of the year 1959.
In Alabama in 1959, segregationist citizens and lawmakers wanted “The Rabbits’ Wedding” pulled from the shelves of the state library — and one state senator wanted it burned! — due to the titular ceremony depicted by illustrator and writer Garth Williams. In between the covers, on lushly drawn and painted pages, a black male rabbit marries a white female rabbit in a moonlit ceremony in a forest on the edge of a meadow.
Alabama State Senator E.O. Eddins, who helped oversee library funding, suggested that the book — by the illustrator of “Charlotte’s Web,” “Stuart Little” and “Little House on the Prairie” — should be incinerated. Eddins said the book’s goal was to promote integration and interracial marriage to impressionable three-to-seven-year-old children. He questioned the motives of librarian Emily Wheelock Reed, on whose watch the favorably reviewed book was purchased by Alabama Public Library Service. As director of the library service she was the de-facto state librarian. In budget meetings, Reed refused to discuss her views on segregation and would not strip the book from her APLS holdings in Montgomery.
She placed the book on the reserve shelf at the APLS, which was headquartered at the time in the State Archive Building across the street from the State Capitol. On the front steps of that capitol, Jefferson Davis was sworn in as the President of the Confederacy. A hundred years later the capitol was the terminus for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery.
I’d never heard of “The Rabbits’ Wedding” until I read the New York Times obituary of librarian Emily Reed in 2000. I instantly thought that her story would make a fascinating play, filled with complex characters in a complicated time. I knew that I wanted Garth Williams, New York-born, New Jersey-bred and European-educated, to be a character in the play, playing multiple roles and watching over that turbulent year in the life of Emily Reed — a powerful woman, not native to Alabama, who was challenging the status quo. Her world was at risk; only two years earlier another Montgomery librarian, Juliette Hampton Morgan, had been pushed to a presumed suicide for her public stand against segregation, particularly her criticism of treatment of African Americans on Montgomery buses during the time of Rosa Parks in 1955-56. (Morgan surfaces in Alabama Story.)
When I read Garth Williams’ public statement about his motives writing the book, I knew that his words, in some form, would appear in the script that became, after much research and brewing, Alabama Story, which was later a finalist in the National Playwrights Conference of the O’Neill Theater Center and recommended for the Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award.
In 1959, Williams said, “[The book] was not written for adults who will not understand it, because it is only about a soft, furry love and has no hidden messages of hate. …I was completely unaware that animals with white fur, such as white polar bears and white dogs and white rabbits, were considered blood relations of white human beings. I was only aware that a white horse next to a black horse looks very picturesque — and my rabbits were inspired by early Chinese paintings of black and white horses in misty landscapes.”
The opening monologue of Act Two of Alabama Story was inspired by Williams’ remarks, and was selected for publication in “The Best Men’s Stage Monologues 2015” (Smith & Kraus).
Today, “The Rabbits’ Wedding” is still in print in the 21st century, from HarperCollins Children’s and available on Amazon.com and wherever books are sold. Its pages remain printed in black and white, with some green and yellow tinting. The rabbits were black and white not for political reasons but apparently as a result of the publisher’s choice not to print in full color, a costlier process. (The art is technically ink wash, pencil and charcoal.) Black and white characters side-by-side offer visual “pop” better than, say, white and white bunnies or white and gray bunnies. (Though, even if the illustrations had been in full, florid, painterly color, one guesses the rabbits would still have been shaded differently, for contrast — perhaps an ivory rabbit and a chestnut rabbit?)
I’m thrilled to have shed light on Emily Reed, a forgotten hero in the Freedom to Read movement in the United States, but I’m also gratified to see copies of “The Rabbits’ Wedding” being sold in theater lobbies, auctioned or raffled off in fundraisers for companies, and exchanged between cast, crew and their wider families. (I like to give the book as a baby shower gift. It first sold for $2.50. It now goes for $17.99.)
Alabama Story just played a well-received, extended, Helen Hayes Award-recommended run by Washington Stage Guild in Washington, DC, where the Washington Post pointed out its “national relevance”: “The 2015 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.”
Productions in 2018 were produced by Vermont Actors Repertory Theatre in Rutland, VT; Southwest Theatre Productions in Austin, TX; Red Mountain Theatre Company in Birmingham, AL; Clarence Brown Theatre in Knoxville, TN; and City Lights Theater Company in San Jose, CA.
Alabama Story had its world premiere by Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City in January 2015 following development by Alabama Shakespeare Festival and Off-Broadway’s TACT/The Actors Company Theatre.