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Players Pen – August 24

With the departure of several members of “The Full Monty’s” 20-member cast, the dinner line is bit shorter these days. The excitement continues as we still have two shows scheduled. Our current offering “Alabama Story” by Kenneth Jones features six actors while four others are in rehearsal during the day for our fall offering, “The 39 Steps.”

“Alabama Story” makes its Midwest debut at Peninsula Players and brings to light a bit of our past, when a librarian stood her ground in the South to keep an innocent children’s book on the shelf while a segregationist senator attacked her and “The Rabbits’ Wedding” by Garth Williams.

Patrons who stayed for the post-show discussion Friday, August 19 asked pointed questions to the cast and creative team such as “Did you research the real people in the play?” “Did you buy the clothing?” “How does this relate today?” to “What inspired the playwright to write this play?”

The cast and creative team replied to each. “I depend on the playwright to tell me about the character,” said Carmen Roman who portrays librarian Emily Wheelock Reed.

“We pulled some costumes from stock, altered some vintage clothes we purchased from various web vendors and others we built from vintage patterns,” said costume shop manager and wig designer Kyle Pingel

Byron Glenn Willis portrays the character Joshua, who returns to Montgomery, Alabama periodically from Detroit, Michigan. Byron replied to a question about the plays relating to issues today. “The show is very relevant and is in good timing…because today we are dealing with racial issues like black lives matter(etc), and many other racial issues that are not being dealt with,” he said.

“For example, when the character Lily chooses not to have any memory of her and Joshua’s traumatic experience and when she finally admits she remembers everything, she wants to say ‘can we just forget about it.’ In today’s world that’s still happening. Nothing is getting resolved or better because, it’s not talked about it is being forgotten about, swept under a rug.

“The world is made up of many different cultures, different colors and shapes which is a beautiful thing. Why should only one race of people be privileged to this wonderful creation, Senator Higgins?”

I’ve been corresponding with playwright Kenneth Jones, so I was able to share the following about what attracted him to the real-life story behind his Southern-set historical drama, and what emerged in the writing process. Jones shared with me the following:

“I draw on many sources to get ideas for the plays and musicals that I write. Alabama Story is the result of my passion for reading newspapers. I grew up reading papers, began my writing 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 in 1959. Senator E.O. Eddins 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 on the grounds that it promoted race-mixing. Their conflict was reported worldwide. Before I finished reading the article, I knew this was an idea for a play.

“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, private and public, child and parent, purity 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 elements from real life were so bold that they seemed to jump out like the cut-outs in a pop-up children’s book. I followed their lead and I gave them a wrangler in Garth Williams himself, who speaks directly to the audience and assumes multiple roles in this land that I call The Deep South of the Imagination. (Williams’ indelible illustrations were likely part of your childhood — he created the art for ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ ‘Charlotte’s Web,’ ‘Stuart Little’ and more). I never approached my play as a dry docudrama; the goal was to make it ‘pop up’ in a way that can only happen in the theater.

“Emily Reed’s story was widely documented in newspapers and magazines at the time, so a lot of source material existed, allowing me to steal and expand upon the actual language and public personalities of the participants. In fact, some of the most outrageous and theatrical language in the play, from the saber-rattling senator, is not made up. You know how playwrights sometimes explain their process as ‘the play wrote itself?’ Well, in many ways Senator Higgins (as I renamed him) wrote himself.

“The process of creating ‘Alabama Story’ included research visits to Montgomery, Selma
and the senator’s hometown of Demopolis, Alabama. I toured the State Capitol, walked the halls of Emily’s library office in the State Archive Building, wandered antebellum homes and graveyards and city parks and museums. I interviewed local historians, librarians and residents. I touched copies of the very newspapers that first reported this unique tale of Civil Rights through the lens of censorship.

“The trip to Demopolis was particularly inspiring. It’s not only Senator Higgins’ stomping ground, but what I imagined as the childhood home of two characters who appear in the play’s reflective story. Lily and Joshua, a black man and a white woman who were once childhood friends in that small town, reunite in Montgomery the same year that the library battle is being waged. They are meant to suggest the private heart of the public controversy. Like the others in the play, they have a deep connection to books and reading, and the quality of their character will be challenged in their exchanges. I view Alabama Story as a mash-up of some of my favorite kinds of plays — courtroom thriller, memory play, romance, historical drama — but underneath all of that is a script about how character is tested in a time of great social change. How will you behave toward others when your world is turned upside down?

“I hope that Alabama Story sparks a memory of a beloved book, the person who gave it to you and the day that you realized that a ‘turning of the page’ could be both terrifying and wonderful. Maybe it will also be a reminder that no matter what our differences, on some level, we all share the same story.”

If you love books or engaging and dynamic theater, join us by the bay for “Alabama Story,” on stage through Sept. 4. For more information phone the Box Office at 920-868-3287 or visit www.peninsulaplayers.com.

Kenneth Jones is a playwright, lyricist and librettist who writes about his own work and advocates for other theatre makers at ByKennethJones.com.