During the 1950s, events that eventually led to the demise of racial segregation in the South began to occur with increasing frequency. The year 1954 saw the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, that ruled “separate but equal” schools was inherently unconstitutional. In 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, AL, leading to the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 authorized the Justice Department to investigate blacks being denied voting rights in the South.
Despite the inevitable tide against them, segregationists fought back in large and small ways, fearing that the smallest crack in their beloved institution would lead to its downfall. Library segregation and the censorship of books that evenly vaguely supported integration was commonplace. It is in this environment that the real life experience of Emily Wheelock Reed, head librarian for the state of Alabama in 1959, comes into play. Kenneth Jones’ play, Alabama Story, explores the controversy faced by Reed in defending books in general—but specifically, a children’s book titled The Rabbits’ Wedding—against an onslaught by segregationists fearful of inevitable change.
There is considerable humor, quaintness, and charm in Jones’ play and in its current production, directed by Kate Buckley, at the Clarence Brown Theatre, in the play’s southeastern U.S. premiere. However, that charm seems a bit incongruous given the subject matter, leading to several questions– Is the play’s naiveté a deliberate allusion to the innocence of a children’s story? Should a drama about the use of censorship to defend racial segregation in the turbulent South of the 1950s ever be humorous and charming? And, should we ever view as dramatically quaint the attitude of southerners who clung to a way of life that disenfranchised a huge section of the population?
Jones has given us six interesting characters, yet they are characters with all the depth of ink on newsprint. Katie Cunningham plays the undaunted-by-pressure Emily Reed, very much the intelligent librarian who sees her purpose as defending “the books.” Despite what we aren’t told about Reed, Cunningham paints a crisp image of a northern-bred career woman of the 1950s who understands the ins and outs of dealing with patronizing males.
While Reed may be oblivious to the local controversy over the seemingly innocuous book The Rabbits’ Wedding, the provincial seriousness is brought to her attention by her assistant, Thomas Franklin, played with brightness here by Chris Klopatek. The seriousness in this case is the segregationist state Senator E.W. Higgins, given depth and even subtle buffoonery by Brian Mani. Higgins (the name was changed from the actual real life senator’s name) is proud of his unyielding segregationist stance and works fervently to prevent the dominos of segregation from teetering toward the inevitable fall.
Garth Williams, the author/illustrator of The Rabbits’ Wedding, appears as a character-narrator of sorts, with that actor also taking a number of other secondary characters, not unlike the Stage Manager of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Not surprising, when CBT has a need for an actor who can take multiple roles and make them unique, they turn to the longtime artist-in-residence and master of portrayals, David Brian Alley. Unfortunately, those in the audience familiar with Alley and his history of characterizations are likely to snicker whenever he appears in a new role, even if that role is totally serious.
While the events in Alabama Story surrounding the issue of libraries and book censorship are inspired by Reed’s real life controversy, Jones offers a fictional side-story to underline the effect that racial segregation had on personal lives. In that story, two adults who were childhood friends meet by chance twenty years later. However, Lily (Brittany Marie Pirozzoli) is white and Joshua (Jade Arnold) is black, their separation and subsequent life tracks determined by their race and family situation. Again, Jones is mysteriously gentle with their story, perhaps hoping that smoothing over what would have been a painful and dramatic conflict yields a more palatable tale for a broad audience.
The idea of the elevating ability of books and libraries is carried through in Becca Johnson’s visually simple set of library-suggestive granite steps leading to substantial classical columns. 1950s costumes were by Kyle Andrew Schellinger; lighting by Kate Bashore.
Despite the incongruity of the play’s softness in dealing with an exceedingly unpleasant time in Southern history, Alabama Story plants seeds in the fertile soil of the audience’s consciousness. Those seeds grow into what-ifs and if-thens that keep reminding us that bigotry, supremacy, and hatred are constantly evolving human characteristics that have an uncanny way of finding new environments—and new characters.
Alabama Story runs through February 18 at the Clarence Brown Theatre
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