A major message that emerged for me in this story is how character is tested in times of great change and emotional stress,” he said. “Everyone in the play is going through a transition. People behave heroically or poorly, sometimes both ways. How will you behave when faced with a challenge? I am hoping that’s one of many takeaways for theatergoers.
Garth Williams’ “Baby Animals” and “Baby’s First Book” are treasured primers in the Little Golden Book Classic series. He also illustrated “Charlotte’s Web,” “Stuart Little” and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series of books, and many readers inseparably associate his drawings with those titles.
However, the author-illustrator’s “The Rabbits’ Wedding” stirred controversy. Amid the nuptial dandelion bouquets and the celebrations of the loving union between two furry bunnies, segregationists in late-1950s Alabama deemed the fanciful story to be promoting racial integration and interracial marriage — because the groom bunny is black and the bride bunny is white.
In playwright Kenneth Jones’ “Alabama Story,” receiving its premiere main-stage production at Pioneer Theatre Company after it was developed last year at the company’s "Play-by-Play" play reading series, Williams is the “frisky, acidic, nimble narrator.”
Jones describes his play’s themes as including “the freedom to read, civil rights, censorship, states’ rights (and) intellectual freedom.”
“A major message that emerged for me in this story is how character is tested in times of great change and emotional stress,” he said. “Everyone in the play is going through a transition. People behave heroically or poorly, sometimes both ways. How will you behave when faced with a challenge? I am hoping that’s one of many takeaways for theatergoers.”
The idea behind “Alabama Story” was germinated after Jones read the May 2000 obituary of Alabama State Library Agency director Emily Wheelock Reed, who staunchly defended “The Rabbits’ Wedding” when challenged by a state senator and segregationist of the White Citizens’ Council when they demanded the book be removed from all Alabama libraries in 1959.
“I instantly saw her story as a potential play,” he said. “Potent dramatic contrasts were inherent in this tale of a librarian pressured by politicians to remove a book from her shelves: North and South, black and white, male and female, insider and outsider, intellectual and emotional, freedom and boundaries, purity of love and poison of hate.”
Fictional characters the playwright added enrich the story, the playwright explained.
“In addition to the main historical story, I created a reflective storyline set in the same year in the same city,” Jones said. “My goal was to show the personal side of the political issues happening in the larger censorship tale. If the book-banning story was about the intellectual realm, the story of two childhood friends — one black and one white — reuniting to discuss their shared past in small-town Alabama is about the sensual and spiritual realm. The stories have some delicate intersections, and, always, the characters are united by a love of books.”
The importance of the printed word became an additional theme to “Alabama Story” as he continued developing the story.
“The passing of books from one person to the next, one generation to the next, also became an important idea as I continued writing the play,” Jones said. “There is something universal about our connection to books. Anyone you know could tell you about the important books in their childhood and their later lives. They can probably tell you who gave them those books — a parent, a sibling, a friend, a teacher, a colleague, a librarian.”
PTC artistic director Karen Azenberg, who also directs the production, was one of the first readers of early “Alabama Story” drafts, and she championed its development.
“Karen and I first worked together about a decade ago when I asked her to stage a couple of readings of my musical ‘Voice of the City,’ ” he said. “She knows that I tend to write rich and fat, and that editing is a major part of the experience. She asks questions, we discuss, I edit and we end up with a leaner, sharper piece of theater. She’s not only a master at creating a visual world; she’s a terrific editor whose questions and ideas prompt better dramatic writing.”
Working in tandem with Azenberg, Jones has crafted what he describes as “a delicious and character-filled yarn colored with tears and laughter, heroes and villains and the sort of stories that are iconic in theater. It was very gratifying to hear laughter and sniffles at the public readings last April in Pioneer’s inaugural 'Play-by-Play' series.”
What does the playwright credit for the strong emotional connection to his play?
“One page may have a courtroom drama quality, but turn the page and there’s political intrigue, and the next page becomes a romantic memory play, and it’s also a workplace play about finding family in the people we work with,” Jones said. “My affection for American plays is evident on many of the pages of ‘Alabama Story.’ ”
According to a content advisory on PTC’s website, “Alabama Story” contains smoking as well as brief mild language and is suitable for children age 10 and older.
If you go ...
What: “Alabama Story”
When: Jan. 9-24
Where: Pioneer Theatre Company, Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East
How much: $25-$44 in advance, $5 more when purchased day of show; children in grades K-12 are half-price on Mondays and Tuesdays