Alabama Story playwright Kenneth Jones shares what attracted him to the real-life story behind his Southern-set historical drama, and what emerged in the writing process.
I draw on many sources to get ideas for the plays and musicals that I write. Alabama Story is the result of my passion for reading newspapers. I grew up reading papers, began my writing career in journalism and can’t imagine a world without the daily routine of digesting headlines.
In May 2000, while reading the New York Times, I came across the story of Emily Wheelock Reed, the former State Librarian of Alabama who had been challenged by a segregationist state senator in 1959. Senator E.O. Eddins demanded that a children’s picture book — Garth Williams’ The Rabbits’ Wedding, about a black rabbit marrying a white rabbit — be purged from the shelves of Alabama libraries on the grounds that it promoted race-mixing. Their conflict was reported worldwide.
Strong characters and richly contrasting conflicts rarely just fall into my lap, but that’s exactly what happened here. Vivid opposites — male and female, black and white, insider and outsider, Southern and Northern, private and public, child and parent, innocence and ugliness — were immediately evident in this forgotten slice of American history. Knowing that Montgomery, Alabama, is so highly charged, historically, as both the Cradle of the Confederacy and the Cradle of Civil Rights helped my imagination to blossom further.
The elements from real life were so bold that they seemed to jump out like the cut-outs in a pop-up children’s book. I followed their lead and I gave them a wrangler in Garth Williams himself, who speaks directly to the audience and assumes multiple roles in this land that I call The Deep South of the Imagination. (Williams’ indelible illustrations were likely part of your childhood — he created the art for “Little House on the Prairie,” “”Charlotte’s Web,” “Stuart Little” and more). I never approached my play as a dry docudrama; the goal was to make it “pop up” in a way that can only happen in the theatre.
Emily Reed’s story was widely documented in newspapers and magazines at the time, so a lot of source material existed, allowing me to steal and expand upon the actual language and public personalities of the participants. In fact, some of the most outrageous and theatrical language in the play, from the saber-rattling senator, is not made up. You know how playwrights sometimes explain their process as “the play wrote itself”? Well, in many ways Senator Higgins (as I renamed him) wrote himself.
The process of creating Alabama Story included research visits to Montgomery, Selma and the senator’s hometown of Demopolis, Alabama. I toured the State Capitol, walked the halls of Emily’s library office in the State Archive Building, wandered antebellum homes and graveyards and city parks and museums. I interviewed local historians and librarians and residents. I touched copies of the very newspapers that first reported this unique tale of Civil Rights through the lens of censorship. [see them here]
The trip to Demopolis was particularly inspiring. It’s not only Senator Higgins’ stomping ground, but what I imagined as the childhood home of two characters who appear in the play’s reflective story. Lily and Joshua, a black man and a white woman who were once childhood friends in that small town, reunite in Montgomery the same year that the library battle is being waged. They are meant to suggest the private heart of the public controversy. Like the others in the play, they have a deep connection to books and reading, and the quality of their character will be challenged by their meetings. I view Alabama Story as a mash-up of some of my favorite kinds of plays — courtroom thriller, memory play, romance, historical drama — but underneath all of that is a script about how character is tested in a time of great social change. How will you behave toward others when your world is turned upside down?
I hope that Alabama Story sparks a memory of a beloved book, the person who gave it to you and the day that you realized that a “turning of the page” could be both terrifying and wonderful. Maybe it will also be a reminder that no matter what our differences, on some level, we all share the same story.
Kenneth Jones is a playwright, lyricist and librettist who writes about his own work and advocates for other theatre makers at ByKennethJones.com.