“Alabama Story” details forgotten piece of history

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Alexander I. Weisman

Greta Lambert (Emily) and Seth Andrews Bridges (Thomas). Photo by Alexander Weisman

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After ending the year with a flurry of big spectacle musicals like “One Man, Two Guvnors” and “Peter and the Starcatcher” Pioneer Theatre Company is ringing in the New Year with a love letter to reading with the world premiere of “Alabama Story” starting January 9th through the 24th.

“Alabama Story” is an original play written by Kenneth Jones who is a New York City based playwright, lyricist and freelance theatre journalist. The play, inspired by true events in 1959 Montgomery, AL during the birth of the civil rights movement, explores the personal side of the movement by addressing issues of access, inclusion and openness.

The fact-inspired play is based on a children’s book by Garth Williams titled “The Rabbits’ Wedding” which is about a white rabbit that marries a black rabbit. The play follows the efforts of an independent-minded librarian named Emily Reed who is challenged by a segregationist politician to remove the book from the library. The children’s book was viewed by some as a socially progressive effort to brainwash children towards the acceptance of integration. “Alabama Story” is also a sparring match between these two contradictory forces as a story about two former childhood friends, and African American man and a white women, that reunite in adulthood and are forced to revisit their troubled past and feelings for each other.

“I read Emily Reed’s obituary in 2000 and instantly thought that her story was the stuff of drama,” says Jones. “Opposites — male and female, black and white, insider and outsider, Southern and Northern, love and hate, child and adult, innocence and ugliness — were immediately evident in this slice of forgotten history.”

In January 2013 Jones showed his first draft of the play to Karen Azenberg, who is directing the play and serves as PTC’s Artistic Director, who immediately fell in love with it and worked with Jones on developing the play. After being invited to develop the play at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in the spring of 2013 Azenberg booked it into PTC’s inaugural Play-By-Play new reading series in April 2014 where it was further refined. During that time Azenberg surprised Jones with the news that PTC was committed to producing a full staging of the play.

“An unknown writer getting a commitment like that is rare. Pioneer is heroic for taking a leap of faith like this, though it not completely blind faith, the Play-By-Play reading was greeted with tears and laughter,” relates Jones. “I think Pioneer was also emboldened by the fact that ‘Alabama Story’ was a finalist in the 2014 National Playwrights Conference of the Eugene O’Neill Festival.”

Although the play is perfectly timed to coincide with the 50th anniversaries of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act as well as the recent release of the movie “Selma” which carries similar themes, Jones doesn’t see his play as a trying to make a social statement.

“I don’t view the play as didactic and wanting to send a message, and I don’t see it as a ‘civil rights’ or ‘issue’ play,” says Jones. “Mostly, I saw an opportunity for a juicy, highly theatrical play loaded with punchy exchanges between compelling people who have something personal at stake in that time of extreme social change in the Deep South.”

Jones goes on to relate that his play teems with big American ideas like censorship, government overreach, intellectual and artistic freedom as well as access to information which are notions that are still relevant today as seen by the recent Sony Pictures hack that has led to a fierce public debate.

“I didn’t seek to write a dry, stodgy docudrama. I wanted to create an artistic impression of the truth, an experience that is slightly magical and draws on theatrical conventions that I have loved as a theatregoer over the years.” says Jones. “I ‘d be most gratified if ‘Alabama Story’ sparked a memory of a beloved book, the person who passed it on to you and the day you realized that a turning of the page could be both terrifying and wonderful, and that on some level, no matter what our differences, we all share the same story.”

“Alabama Story” makes it’s world premiere at PTC on January 9th through the 24th. Tickets can be purchased at the box office and online at www.pioneertheatre.org.

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