November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

A Hit Play About Libraries, Censorship, and Civil Rights Resonates with Audiences

In 1958, as African Americans were fighting for equal access to libraries, lunch counters, and schools, Garth Williams wrote a children’s book about a white rabbit and a black rabbit who marry. The renowned illustrator of Charlotte’s Web and the “Little House” series set off a firestorm in Montgomery, AL, where segregationists saw The Rabbits’ Wedding (Harper) as a none-too-subtle endorsement of integration and interracial marriage. A battle ensued the following year between state librarian Emily Wheelock Reed and state senator E.O. Eddins and his supporters, who demanded that the book be banned from the library—and burned.

Emily Wheelock Reed

Emily Wheelock Reed

When New York City-based playwright and theater journalist Kenneth Jones read Reed’s obituary in The New York Times in 2000, he knew he’d found the material for his next play, Alabama Story. “Her story jumped out at me as highly dramatic. It’s full of natural contrasts and tensions that help make for fertile soil on the stage: black and white, north and south, male and female, conservative and liberal. Emily was a champion in the freedom-to-read battle that continues today, but few know her story. I wanted to give her a second act,” says Jones.

Eddins (named E.W. Higgins in the production) publicly bullied Reed, threatening her library budget and her job if she didn’t pull the book. Reed, an unmarried woman in the 1950s South, agreed to move The Rabbits’ Wedding from the open to reserve shelves, where it could be obtained on request, but otherwise stood her ground. “She was a woman alone in a hostile town in a job controlled by powerful men,” says Jones. “I don’t know if I would have had the strength to stay. She fought it out.”

Jones found rich material for some of his dialog in period newspaper reports about the controversy, including Reed’s declaration that “A library must be a repository of all sides of the question.” The segregationist senator says in the play, “The South has room for only one viewpoint.”

Alabama Story, which debuted in Salt Lake City in 2015 and opened at the Peninsula Players Theater in Fish Creek, WI, on August 17, mixes plenty of fiction with those historical details, however. Case in point: to balance Reed and Eddins’s very public debates about censorship and race, Jones creates a series of personal exchanges between two childhood friends—one white, one black—who reconnect as adults. “Ultimately, Alabama Story is a social-justice character study,” says Jones. “As I continued writing it, the major theme that emerged for me was how character is tested in times of great social change.”

Indeed, as racial tensions are heightening around the country now, that theme has resonated with theatergoers. “At every performance I’ve attended in its first two productions, there are lots of tears flowing in the audience,” says Jones.

“Many of the issues raised in the play are still not satisfactorily answered today,” says Greg Vinkler, artistic director of the Peninsula Players Theatre, who plays the senator in the production. “My hope is that this might help some people look at those issues in a more human, and humane, way,” he says.

Also playing a role in the play, Williams helps guide viewers through the production as both a narrator and a utility player. His part was inspired by the famous stage manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, says Jones. In real life, Williams denied a hidden agenda in The Rabbits’ Wedding, stating, “I was completely unaware that animals with white fur, such as white polar bears and white dogs and white rabbits, were considered blood relations of white human beings.”

The book, nonetheless, left an indelible mark on the history of civil rights in Alabama. “Books have power and can help shape events in this world in which we live,” says Vinkler. “It pleases me no end to produce a play whose hero is, in a sense, a book.”

Reed again crossed segregationists in 1959 when she distributed a reading list that included Stride Toward Freedom, a story about the Montgomery bus boycott written by Martin Luther King, Jr. She left Montgomery to join the Washington, D.C. library system in 1960. Reed received the Roll of Honor Award in 2000 from the Freedom to Read Foundation.

Alabama Story was a nominee for the 2016 Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award and was a 2014 Finalist in the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. In the Peninsula Players production, which runs through September 4, Carmen Roman plays Reed and James Leaming plays Williams. Other members of the cast include Katherine Keberlein, Byron Glenn Willis, and Harter Clingman, in addition to Vinkler.

Later production runs include August 25 through September 25 at the Wellfleet (MA) Harbor Actors Theater, and September 22 through October 9 at The Theater Company in Detroit, MI, the playwright’s hometown.


Mary Giles is the former editor at FamilyFun and Parenting magazines and appears frequently on Today.

 

 

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Comments

  1. “A battle ensued the following year between state librarian Emily Wheelock Reed and state senator E.O”
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