9/18/2022 ALABAMA STORY Georgia Ensemble Theatre
TELL ME A STORY
Like all good stories, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
In the beginning, a writer named Garth Williams writes and publishes a Children’s Book, The Rabbit’s Wedding. It is a gentle story about friendship, and love, and happily ever after. In the middle, an Alabama state senator objects to the book because one rabbit is white and the other is black. In the end, the Alabama State Librarian is threatened with loss of funding and even with violence for refusing to pull the book from her shelves.
“The free flow of information is the best means to solve the problems of the South, the nation and the world…”
-- Emily Wheelock Reed, State Librarian of Alabama 1957 – 1959
In the beginning, a black boy named Joshua and a white girl named Lily grow up as childhood friends, innocent of the racial divide that defines their small hometown of Demopolis, Alabama. In the middle, they reunite in Montgomery, just as their adult roles in their separate communities face constant scrutiny and judgment. In the end, their friendship is tested by the fight for integration and civil rights, and they must find the strength that will eventually define them.
“[The play is] a humor-laced social-justice drama that is a sort of cousin to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ — it wants to be about displays of good character in difficult times.”
-- Kenneth Johnson, author of “Alabama Story”
In the beginning, playwright Kenneth Jones reads an obituary of a woman named Emily Wheelock Reed, and heard, for the first time, the history of the time when a children’s book twisted the knickers of a powerful segregationist, son of a Confederate veteran, a State Senator from Demopolis Alabama. In the middle, Mr. Jones writes a play, Alabama Story, about the full power of the written word, about historical characters caught in the crosshairs of history, about fictional characters who reflect the private side of a very public story. In the end, Georgia Ensemble Theatre produces the play, bringing it to Atlanta audiences in a brilliant production that informs, that moves, that brings to light the passions that words create or arouse or inflame.
Political foes, star-crossed lovers, and one feisty children’s author inhabit the same page in a Deep South of the imagination that brims with humor, heartbreak and hope.
-- Description of the play from Dramatists Play Service’s Licensing Department
This is the second play I’ve seen in less than a week that praises reading, books, and all things imagination. Okay, maybe this one is aimed at older audiences than The Incredible Book Eating Boy, and maybe it is more concerned with censorship than books themselves, and maybe it is using an historical footnote to shine a spotlight on current efforts to suppress LGBTQIA+ ideas and racist histories. And maybe I was so moved by this play because my best friend throughout the eighties and nineties was a librarian until cancer took her from us, so any play in which the most heroic character is a librarian will evoke painful memories of loss, even as it celebrates librarians and books and … But I digress.
In the beginning, I sat down to write a review about a moving play that affected me on a gut level. In the middle I stumbled on the evocation of a long-lost friend (the “best woman” at my wedding in fact). In the end …. Well let’s wait and see.
Tell me a story. Please.
We meet Garth Williams as he describes his innocent little book to us. Beautifully played by Robert Wayne, he assures us there was not a political intent behind his choice of a black rabbit and a white rabbit, but an artistic intent – the original illustrations were in black and white and making them opposite colors simply looked better on the page, more vivid to young eyes just learning to read.
Our segregationist senator – here called E.W. Higgins to slightly fictionalize him from his historical antecedent (Edwin Oswood Eddins) so there could be a potential of redemption, of humanization that history never saw – sees the world in black and white, hating anything even suggesting black or gray or the humanization of THEM.
Our fictional young folk, Joshua and Lily are naïve beyond understanding, but soon emerge as fully realized as the historical characters. He volunteers at Dr. King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, she is rich and privileged and may have a secret crush on her childhood friend. They share an innocent kiss, which I understand moved some audience members to walk out of the show. The more things change …
In the lobby are displays of books that have, at one time or another, been the target of book banners, books whose ideas some find deplorable, books that our children should not be exposed to. I almost got into it with a fellow usher who insisted books need to be banned, that today they go too far.
Yes the thought was free and it spread like fire
Though it didn't please you and it didn't please me.
It was banished from the land by the King's desire
And the boat pulled out, but the thought stayed free.
Now worst of all in this terrible tale
Though we tried to hurl it from our shores
Not only did this troublesome thought prevail
But worst of all one thought bred more.
From “The Thought Stayed Free” by Tom Paxton
It is a supreme irony of history that the efforts to suppress The Rabbit’s Wedding made it the author’s best-selling book ever. It is a lovely irony that efforts to suppress will always (ALWAYS!) make what is suppressed more appealing and eventually give it wings. I am reminded of the irony in the latest news from Florida and Texas and Martha’s Vineyard, that if the transport of the refuges is deemed a criminal act, immigration laws will provide them with a fast track to having their claims of asylum approved.
I will freely admit here before you all that Georgia Ensemble’s production of Alabama Story, in its sly and literary way, moved me more than all the other plays I’ve seen this week, tickled my irony bones in ways that are downright sinful, and validated by chronic Bibliophilia. As my T-Shirt says, there is no such thing as too many books.
Shannon Eubanks is absolutely brilliant as Emily Reed. Don Farrell makes Senator Higgins despicable, as EO Eddins no doubt was, but he also makes him human and even occasionally brilliant.
Emily Reed: Why is it that you are never wrong and you never apologize?
Senator Higgins: If I am never wrong, why do I need to apologize?
Jontavious Johnson and Emily Nedvidek are appealingly innocent and earnest as Joshua and Lily. Justin Walker makes the most of his role of Thomas Franklin, Ms. Reed’s assistant and researcher.
But this is Robert Wayne’s play. In addition to Garth Williams, he also plays a segregationist congressman at the end of his career, a journalist interviewing Emily Reed, and others. It is a tour-de-force and I loved every minute of Mr. Wayne’s performance(s).
Isabel and Moriah Curly-Clay have designed and constructed a beautiful set, dripping with southern sunlight and Spanish moss, book motifs towering through the roof, small areas and set pieces that rotate and change to quickly reset the scene or allow simultaneous actions from different locations share our attention.
Alabama Story is one of the best productions of the year, and you will not do yourself any favors by banning it from your play-going calendar.
Tell me your story!
More than that, be open to stories that challenge you, that “rub you the wrong way,” that celebrate that which (or those whom) you despise.
If the Free Flow of ideas is our pathway to closing our national divide, damming up that flow will only result in us drowning as a civilization.
Tell me your story! I want to hear it!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #GETAlabamaStory)