By Daniel Skora
In 1959, with the Civil Rights Movement about to hit fever pitch in America, the depiction in a children’s picture book of a wedding between a black rabbit and a white rabbit caused a minor uproar in the segregated state of Alabama. The book, “The Rabbits’ Wedding” by author/illustrator Garth Williams, could be found in the catalogues of many of the state’s libraries, and several organizations, including one state senator, were finding it offensive. But the book had a staunch supporter in Emily Wheelock Reed, the director of the Alabama State Library Agency. “Alabama Story”, the current presentation of The Theatre Company, is the story of that highly charged controversy between the two people at the head of the factions on opposite sides of the issue.
“Alabama Story” is the work of Kenneth Jones, who in a prior life was at the back end of plays writing reviews of other peoples’ work. He’s now at the front end and reading reviews of his work written by others. Jones has a local connection, having served a stint writing arts and theatre for the Detroit News in the 1990’s. With a handful of plays already to his credit, his latest is part history, part character study and has a plotline that performs like a thriller. Librarian Emily Wheelock Reed (Melissa Beckwith in another convincing performance following her recent triumph in “Katherine” at Theatre Nova) defended the disputed book because she found it to be unobjectionable and had a right to stay on the shelves. Reed may appear to be like everyone’s priggish aunt who arrives at your doorstep every holiday bearing fruitcake and a saccharine smile, but there’s the heart of a tiger beating inside her. Her opponent, referred to in the play as Senator E.W. Higgins (Daniel Jaroslaw), is a surprisingly human, even likeable character, despite his segregationist beliefs.
Jones’ story and the Theatre Company’s production mesh nicely. Alexander Kendziuk plays Thomas Franklin, Reed’s assistant who adds a calming influence to the often times confrontational relationship between the librarian and the senator. A subplot that deals with the topic of segregation more authentically than books or debate ever will has the childhood friendship between Lily Whitfield (Sidney Mains) who is white, and Joshua Moore (DeShawn King) who is black, broken apart by their parents.
Garth Williams, excellently depicted by Andrew Papa, was an author and illustrator of children’s books. The images he created for titles like Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and Laura Ingles Wilde’s Little House on the Prairie Series are now considered to be the definitive illustrations for those classics. As for the controversy that developed in Alabama, Williams always maintained that the use of a black rabbit and a white one was nothing more than a technique to provide contrast in order to help young readers easily distinguish between the two rabbits and had nothing to do with race.
All drama based on historical events must, by necessity, identify people, places and events that are critical to the story. Factual data always has a way of making demands of the creative process. To this end, “Alabama Story” is no exception. In its attempt to straddle the fence between remaining true to its story and the desire to craft a play that will be entertaining as well as relevant, it often comes off as seeming forced and rigid.
Also, how to close a play is oftentimes a tricky subject. Who hasn’t been at a play where the stage goes dark and silence hangs in the air until one lone soul associated with the production begins clapping, signaling to everyone that the show is over. “Alabama Story” actually has several endings. The first of those even garnered an end-of-play response from the audience the night this reviewer saw the production. The problem then arises that the audience feels a little embarrassed that they’ve applauded at the wrong time and hesitates to applaud when the real ending happens. Every one of “Alabama’s” false endings has a charm of its own and fully belongs in the play. It would, however, have better served both the play and the audience to have somehow been able to gather them together into one final scene.
“Alabama Story” is directed by Jamie Warrow. Set and costumes are by Melinda Pacha with lighting by Amy Schneider. The production is a Michigan premier and runs through October 9th. Theatre Company performances are held at The Marlene Boll Theatre inside of the Boll Family Y.M.C.A. located at 1401 Broadway St. in downtown Detroit. Tickets can be ordered online at www.UDMarts.com or by calling 1.313.993.3270. Tickets are also available Tuesday through Friday Noon to 5:00p.m. at the theatre’s box office at Reno Hall at the University of Detroit Marcy located at 4001 W. McNichols in Detroit or 45 minutes prior to curtain time at the performance hall.