by Kenneth Jones
I draw on many sources for the ideas for plays and musicals that I write. Alabama Story is the result of my passion for reading newspapers. I grew up reading papers, began my 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 there in 1959. He 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. 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, child and adult, 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 contrasts and characters were so bold that they seemed to jump out like the cut-outs in a pop-up book. I followed their lead and I gave them a leader in Garth Williams himself, whose indelible illustrations were likely part of your childhood. I never saw the play as a dry docudrama; the goal was to make it “pop up” in a way that can only happen in the theatre.
In my residency last April in Pioneer’s first Play-By-Play New Reading Series and again this winter in rehearsal for the full production of Alabama Story, I’ve felt that there’s something magical about Salt Lake City — the people, the altitude, the mountains that ring the valley. It all inspires me to reach higher as a storyteller. I’m honored to be part of Pioneer Theatre Company’s ongoing and renewed passion for producing new works for the American stage. I’m grateful to artistic director Karen Azenberg, managing director Chris Lino and the passionate board of directors for taking a leap of faith with an unknown title and an unknown author. It’s heroic and rare.
I hope that Alabama Story sparks a memory of a beloved book, the person who gave it 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.