On Easter in 1959, American society was very different than we know it today. The Baby Boom was producing a generation of toddlers and young children whose parents, veterans of World War II, still made all the decisions in industry and government. The U.S. Highway System was a network of two-lane country roads coursing directly through main streets and town squares, as construction for the massive Interstate highway system became law only three years prior. A truck-driving son of a sharecropper named Elvis Presley had recorded his first rockabilly single record, “Heartbreak Hotel” only three years prior. Young John F. Kennedy had been re-elected to his second term in the US Senate only 4 months prior to Easter 1959, the beginning of ALABAMA STORY.
Five years prior, a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court asserted that separating school systems according to race necessarily perpetuated an inferior education for African-Americans, then referred to as Negroes. Martin Luther King Jr.’s first book Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story was published. Five years before in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks sat in the white section of the Cleveland Avenue bus for her ride home from work, and refused to move to the rear as required by a 1938 city ordinance.
Alabama Public Service Commission President Eugene “Bull” Conner would order Birmingham fire hoses to be used against Freedom Riders two years later. Dr. King was four years away from speaking about his dream of racial equality on the National Mall, and would not fall to an assassin’s bullet in Memphis for another five years beyond that. In 1963, the Ku Klux Klan would bomb the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four girls ages 11 to 14, and Governor George Wallace would use his own body to prevent two black students from attending the University of Alabama. Civil Rights activists would not attempt the first 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery for another six years, known as “Bloody Sunday.”
On Easter 1959, I was living in a small, segregated Alabama town, not yet one year old. These events have special significance for me, as I grew up watching the effects the Civil Rights Movement had on my local community. I was a student as Alabama’s schools were desegregated.
An illustrator named Garth Williams had published a picture book for children entitled, “The Rabbits’ Wedding” eleven months prior, in which two bunny rabbits fall in love and marry. Published in black-and-white, the rabbits were necessarily depicted using differing colors – one black, the other white. The innocuous publication became a lightning rod for segregationist hatred when it was introduced to public libraries across Alabama by the state’s Director of the Alabama Public Library Service Division, Emily Wheelock Reed. State senator Edward Oswell Eddins, fictionalized for the play in the form of Senator E. W. Higgins, led the cause for censoring the book from circulation, even suggesting it should be burned.
Emily Reed is a highly intelligent lover of literature. Uncomfortable with being cast as social activist, she steps up with both trepidation and courage as she opposes the powerful Senator. As Emily, Nancy Gray is easy to like, and with her thoughtful performance gives a competent, reasonable and professional Reed.
Reed’s assistant, Thomas Franklin, well-portrayed by Stephen Phillips, is similarly astute and supportive. During an awkward exchange between them, Phillips as Thomas relates personal experiences with sweetness and pathos that touches deep emotion.
The role of Senator Higgins could have been caricatured as a bombastic bully, but Scott Galbreath gives us a far better interpretation. Far from a one-dimensional villain, Galbreath delivers Senator Higgins with depth, intelligence, and humor. Belying his odious opinions, he is nonetheless personable and even likeable at times; he is just, if you’ll forgive the trite expression, on the wrong side of history. Through it all, he believes his is the proper cause.
Parallel to the main story is a sweet tale of two childhood friends, Lily and Joshua, who reconnect as adults, a Caucasian woman and an African-American man. Ryan Sterling Smith plays Joshua Moore, a native Alabamian and Korean War vet transplanted to Michigan. Joshua returns to Montgomery periodically to work for the cause of equality. On doing so, he encounters Lily Whitfield, expertly manifested by Sarah Joy Byington. Smith brings to the production a Joshua who bears the wisdom of having been unfairly treated, yet a stubborn determination to be part of the solution to the societal cancer of racist attitudes.
Overlaying the simultaneous stories, is Derek Webster as Garth Williams, illustrator, narrator, and author of The Rabbits’ Wedding. Webster also plays Bobby Crone, a senior senator and mentor to Higgins, and various random members of the population. As Crone, he provides the wisdom and temperament to Higgins. Derek Webster is delightful, establishing a direct relationship with the audience, finding humor along the journey
Not to be an overly heavy and serious experience, ALABAMA STORY finds humor within the bits of dialog, in a manner that is accomplished through well-developed and well-delivered characters. Garth, Emily, and Thomas all have richly chuckle-inducing lines, and even Senator Higgins gets in on the fun during his more human moments.
The production is not encumbered by the cartoonishly antebellum speech accents often found in dramatic works about the Deep South. The actors found the right dialects for their respective characters with Alabama accents, real but not overstated. The greatest of these is Sarah Joy Byington as Lily. So perfect are her demure tone and flat diphthongs that I wanted to check the playbill to see if she was from my own hometown.
I took the opportunity to see two presentations of ALABAMA STORY on opening weekend. Opening night on Thursday July 12th experienced a few technical issues with the microphones, but by the Saturday night performance those had ironed out, and everything was firing on all cylinders.
The set design by Chris Conrad is an outstanding use of space, and one of the more functional that I have seen at the Trinity Street. A temporary stage has been constructed to represent the central Library office and the State Capitol. Downstage the floor is used for outdoors action. Occasionally, scenes are presented concurrently.
Director Kat Sparks, herself originally an Alabamian, brings her own creative interpretation into this production. Through music and other audio between scenes, she provides historical perspective and relates the events onstage to our collective American experience of the time. The total experience is neither heavy social commentary nor isolated human interactions, but rather interpersonal relationships that are backlit with the time in which they occur. Sparks’ previously staged productions include EXIT 27, CAGES, and IF I FORGET, all of which are examinations of societal problems, all treated as personal human stories in a frank manner without sliding into overbearing didacticism.
This significant 2013 work by New York playwright Kenneth Jones was nominated for the Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award and in 2014 was a finalist in the National Playwrights Conference of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. It is an important story and one that definitely must be seen.