The facts behind the real life incidents captured in Kenneth Jones’s Alabama Story – the controversy over banning a children’s book – stands as a cautionary tale, one that has been brought to life and beautifully rendered by Washington Stage Guild.
As Director of the Alabama Public Library Service, Emily Wheelock Reed, played by the stellar Julie-Ann Elliott, dutifully assures that quality books are well stocked throughout the state and available to the population—at least those permitted to use the facilities. Reed takes her job seriously with a no-nonsense poise as she promotes the American Library Association’s book selections. Little did she know that one of the children’s books “The Rabbits Wedding” was a picture story of rabbits who care for each other and marry. Cute—except that one is black and the other white, igniting a controvery that rose all the way to the Alabama legislature in 1959. And let the outrage begin.
Also playing out is a fictional story between two characters near a park outside a hospital. A young white woman, Lily, (Jenny Donovan,) sitting on a bench reading her book attracts the attention of a nicely dressed black fellow who pauses to look at her with recognition and tries to start a conversation. Barely looking up, her immediate disdain and dismissal are clear. More annoyed than fearful, she’s still a beat from calling for help when he says her name, shares his own and she finally takes the time to actually look at him. That moment of recognition sets the framework for everything else in this endearing play.
Joshua Moore (Gerrad Alex Taylor) played with Lily in the “big house” when they were children while he and his mother, the family domestic, stayed in the crumbling structure nearby. Their shared memories which ebb and flow throughout the play are sometimes exactly the same and at other times, strikingly different, a neat reflection of subconscious recall from this gifted writer. It’s their story that helps provide the context of early 1950’s and the dawning of the Civil Rights movement. Joshua visits periodically with his late Mom’s Bible in hand, attending meetings at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church with the new young minister from Atlanta, Dr. Martin L. King, Jr.
Meanwhile back to the fomentation in the library. Another acting heavyweight Nigel Reed provides the narrative voice of the book’s illustrator, Garth Williams. Reed brings a calming presence in describing the innocence of his brush strokes to depict the prize-winning and notable characters he’s illustrated. In a nice move, Kasi Campbell’s direction has him initially sitting on the floor in the far right corner listening and observing what’s going on before he re-enters as an ensemble character.
As the honored (renamed) Alabama Senator E.W .Higgins has a soft spot for books, prefers Tom Sawyer to that ruffian Finn and usually keeps government funding lush and dependable. The always reliable Steven Carpenter brings a sleuth-like quality to Higgins as he slowly and steadily interrogates the librarian about her knowledge of the “hidden” messages of the book. The conservative press is already lambasting it as a degenerative influence on youngsters since it promotes the dreaded, morally reprehensible and even illegal race-mixing— with tax payer funding! See? We need this story!
The relatively new script by Kenneth Jones (it debuted in 2015) touches on the sacrifices that so many made in the Civil Rights struggle. Thomas Franklin, Librarian Reed’s trusted assistant, describes the taunts and assaults on a previous colleague who stuck to her beliefs that all people deserved the right to access public materials.
closes April 22, 2018
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Franklin, played with crisp attentiveness by Chris Herring, brings yet another element of social commentary to the story in a sweet and caring portrayal.
What comes across in the play is that everyday people going about their business can be thrust into making decisions and taking stands for the good of many and personally suffering the consequences. If something as simple as a children’s picture book by a prize-winning illustrator/writer could stir up death threats and assaults on a white head librarian, one can only imagine the hardship that the black community lived with daily. Taylor’s Joshua represents aspects of that community. He talks comfortably with his old playmate when they’re alone but instinctively code switches his movements to cautious deference when any white person passes by. It doesn’t take much to know what could happen otherwise. Alabama Story takes place just four years after the murder of Emmitt Till– countless nameless victims made it clear that black lives didn’t matter a bit and Taylor hits the nuances beautifully.
Every aspect of the design is superb. The music reflects the interweaving influences of the cultures ranging from down home blues to soul-stirring gospel to honky-tonk. The appealing set design (Jingwei Dai and Kirk Kristlibas) includes elegant Romanesque columns that frame the entire backstage, a park bench on the left and fully functional library office on the right, bookcases stocked with well-worn brown leather books.
In the opening scene, a shawl drapes the bench where Joshua and Lily talk. In the next scene the shawl has been removed and the “Whites Only” sign of blatant racism reads bright and clear. That simple sign in Alabama Story keeps the menacing tone from yesteryear front and center for the rest of the play. The subliminal story for today is that covering a sign doesn’t make it go away. Feelings of superiority, entitlement, separateness and extreme cultural identity are still lurking under the surface of our social fabric. And it takes everyday people going about their business to make the tough decisions and take the actions necessary to change the story.
Alabama Story by Kenneth Jones . Directed by Kasi Campbell . Cast: Nigel Reed, Jenny Donovan, Gerrad Alex Taylor, Steven Carpenter, Julie-Ann Elliott, Chris Herring . Assistant Director: Carl Randolph . Set Design: Jingwei Dai and Kirk Kristlibas . Costume Design: Stacey Thomann Hamilton . Lighting Design: Marianne Meadows . Sound Design: Frank DiSlavo, Jr. . Stage Manager: Arthur Nordlie . Produced by Washington Stage Guild . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.
[Side note: Another controversial bunny book is in the news. Vice President Pence has a rabbit named Marlon Bundo who is featured in two children’s books. Pence’s daughter Charlotte wrote Marlon Bundo’s Day in the Life of the Vice President. Late night host John Oliver answered with a gay bunny book, A Day In The Life Of Marlon Bundo. Both are best sellers.]