Librarian Takes Center Stage in Book-Banning Play
By: Ellie Diaz
“Alabama Story” will be performed across the country during the 2017-18 theater season. Take a peek at the play’s updated schedule at the end of the post.
In honor of its 45th anniversary, Freedom to Read Foundation members traveled to Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Theatre Company in January 2015 to witness something others seldom saw in a play: a librarian, center stage, battling segregationists and legislators to defend a children’s book in the late 1950s. The attendees recognized the name of the lead character in “Alabama Story,” since she was a member of the advocacy organization, and the play is based on her brief and turbulent career in Montgomery.
In 1959, State Librarian Emily Wheelock Reed made national headlines when she refused to take “The Rabbits’ Wedding” off the shelves of the Alabama Public Library Service. “The Rabbits’ Wedding” — written by Garth Williams, the same illustrator of “Charlotte’s Web” and “Little House on the Prairie” series — ends with a black rabbit and white rabbit marrying in a moonlit forest, surrounded by their furry friends. With the country in civil unrest and segregation still resilient, the book caught the attention of Alabama State Senator E.O. Eddins (renamed Senator Higgins in the play), who demanded Reed ban the book or risk losing her job.
Playwright and theater journalist Kenneth Jones was inspired to write “Alabama Story” after reading Reed’s New York Times obituary in May 2000. The obituary included details about the challenge, as well as the 89-year-old’s honors from the American Library Association and Freedom to Read Foundation.
“When I read Emily’s story, it instantly jumped out at me as a social justice drama along the lines of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’” said Jones. “Both the librarian and the legislator had huge ‘stakes,’ as we say in the theater: She was protecting the freedom to read and her very job, and [Eddins] was protecting a way of life that kept him and his people and voters – white folks – in power. That makes for great opposing forces and great drama.”
“Alabama Story” combines dramatized subplots — such as a fictionalized love story between two childhood friends, one white and one African American — with historical details (even borrowing direct quotes from old newspapers) to not only recreate this monumental stand in censorship history, but also to depict segregation in the 1950s. The result is a complex interpretation of freedom and protection.
“It’s still not clear to me if this is a censorship story through the lens of civil rights, or a civil rights story through the lens of censorship,” said Jones.
The Michigan-native, now based in New York City, explained that he portrayed Reed as a complex and flawed individual, but one that many librarians can relate to. It was Reed’s legacy that inspired Jones to join the Freedom to Read Foundation, dedicated to protecting the First Amendment.
Reed’s determination is highlighted in the play when a journalist asks whether she hates the legislative scrutiny that followed her decision.
“Hate? No, defending books and budgets is part of the job. With due respect, what I dislike is this — us, here. Having to be so public, so ‘profiled.’ I had always hoped that the books would speak for me — and speak for themselves. I do not welcome glare, Mr. Webb. I prefer the warm light of a lamp, the contemplative silence of a study, like the kind my father had. But glare is sometimes a necessary evil.”
Jones recognizes that this “glare” still occurs today. Last year, 275 library material challenges were reported to The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. If set in modern times, Jones said the play would focus on topics such as digital access, erotica and LGBT content.
“Librarians I met [after productions] shared stories of challenged books in their communities and reminded me that the battle to keep books available continues today,” said Jones. “The freedom to read is at risk still; it’s an issue — as Emily says in the play — ‘as old as Gutenberg.’”
Kenneth Jones’ “Alabama Story” will be in seen in at least 11 cities around the country in the 2017-18 theater season. Producing organizations range from high school troupes to community/civic theaters to Equity and non-Equity professional theaters.
Lamb Arts Regional Theatre, Sioux City, IA
Sept. 15-Oct. 1, 2017
Alternative Truth Project, LaCrosse, WI
Sept. 25, 2017 Concert Reading Featuring Librarians in Roles
Columbia High School/The Parnassian Society, Maplewood, NJ
Nov. 16-19, 2017
Majestic Theatre, West Springfield, MA
Jan. 4-Feb. 11, 2018
City Lights Theatre Company, San Jose, CA
Jan. 18-Feb. 18, 2018
Clarence Brown Theatre, Knoxville, TN
Jan. 31-Feb. 18, 2018
Different Strokes Performing Arts Collective, Asheville, NC
Feb. 8-24, 2018
Red Mountain Theatre Company, Birmingham, AL
March 2018 Two Fully Produced Performances
Washington Stage Guild, Washington, DC
March 22-April 15, 2018
Vermont Actors Repertory Theatre, Rutland, VT
April 26-May 5, 2018
Southwest Theatre Productions, Austin, TX
May 4-12, 2018
Learn more about Jones’ work at ByKennethJones.com.