Florida Studio Theatre has, in the past several seasons, worked to present new plays that deal with issues of racism at different times in our country’s history. That effort continues with the current production at the Gompertz Theatre—a regional premiere—of Kenneth Jones’ Alabama Story, a fact-based recounting of an incident that took place in 1959 Montgomery, Ala.
The issue involved here is so absurd that it has to be true; surely no one would make it up. A furor develops over a children’s book called The Rabbits’ Wedding, by author-illustrator Garth Williams (who’s represented here onstage by Kevin Cutts). It’s an innocent story of a black rabbit marrying a white rabbit, but in the segregated South, that’s enough to rouse the wrath of a state senator (Andy Prosky), who gains widespread attention for decrying the book’s presence on the shelves of Alabama public libraries.
That puts the state’s head librarian, Emily Wheelock Reed (Jean Tafler) in the position of fighting the senator’s would-be censorship of the book, aided by her loyal if somewhat awkward assistant (Danny Bernardy).
The play’s two other characters, one assumes, are not real-life, but they could have been. One is the black Joshua (Chris White), who runs into his former childhood friend, the white Lily (appropriately named), played by Rachel Moulton. They have some similar fond recollections of their young lives in the cotton-rich heart of the Deep South, but there are some memories Lily would like to repress, although Joshua, now volunteering alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., cannot.
It all sounds ripe for some high-pitched emotional confrontations, but to his credit Jones does not overdo the histrionics or paint his characters in stark shades. One thing all his characters have in common is a love for a story, whether it’s the senator’s favorite, Tom Sawyer, or the tales of Uncle Remus that Lily and Joshua grew up with. The Alabama Story Jones is telling draws threads from every character’s background to present a more nuanced work than you might expect.
Inevitably, perhaps, the play can still come across at times as a bit of a history lesson, as the actors occasionally read aloud newspaper editorials or remind us of other figures—George Wallace, Rosa Parks--on different sides of the civil rights movement. But in general the actors, directed by Kate Alexander, keep us involved with their characters’ personal stories told within the bigger overall one (although some minor cuts in the early scenes between Joshua and Lily would probably not hurt and would keep the action flowing more readily).
As usual, FST offers several community forums for discussion of topics raised by this play; for information, and for tickets to Alabama Story, go to floridastudiotheatre.org or call 366-9000.