By Alec Harvey
State librarian’s courageous stance is focus of play
When playwright Kenneth Jones read about Emily Wheelock Reed’s death, he knew the story of the Alabama librarian who became a civil rights activist should come to the stage.
“I was reading The New York Times one day in 2000, 20 years ago, and I read the obituary of this librarian I had never heard of and had been largely lost to history,” he recalls. “The moment I read it, I thought the story – a librarian personally attacked for protecting books – was a play.”
Jones’ “Alabama Story” received its first reading as part of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s Southern Writers’ Project Festival of New Plays in 2013. Seven years later, ASF will present a full production of the play March 5-22.
The play tells the story of Reed, who, as the director of the Alabama Public Library Service Division during the civil rights movement, decided which books to buy for Alabama’s libraries. One of those books was Garth Williams’ children’s book The Rabbits’ Wedding, about animals attending the wedding of a white rabbit to a black rabbit. Segregationist Sen. E.O. Eddins (changed to E.W. Higgins in the play) wanted Williams’ book and others banned, and Reed refused. Among other things, he demanded Reed’s resignation, but she remained in her job and kept the book in Alabama libraries.
“I fell in love with this story,” Jones says. “This was a real passion project for me.”
While writing “Alabama Story,” Jones visited the state to do research. He visited Montgomery landmarks, including the State Department of Archives and History building, the State Capitol, Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church and Oak Park, which figure into his play.
He also visited Demopolis, the hometown of Sen. Eddins/Higgins and two fictional characters in “Alabama Story,” a white woman named Lily and a black man named Joshua. Their story ends up connecting to Reed’s in surprising and subtle ways.
“They are the perfume and poetry and heart of a play that is often concerned with issues and politics and ideas,” Jones says.
Though she was not part of ASF’s original reading in 2013, Greta Lambert, a veteran of more than 100 productions at ASF, starred as Reed in 2015’s world premiere of “Alabama Story” at Utah’s Pioneer Theatre. She’ll also star in ASF’s upcoming production, which is directed by ASF Artistic Director Rick Dildine.
“It’s very exciting because in a way I sort of start ahead of the game because I’ve already discovered so much,” says Lambert, ASF’s associate artistic director. “Because of that, it might be richer and have more depth. I’ll also find different nuances and a different take on lines and ideas.”
Lambert says the role of Reed is a juicy one for an actress.
“I admire her strength so much,” the actress says. “She’s on the right side of a fight. She wholeheartedly believes in what she believes in and pursues it doggedly. … There are so many things against her, and this fight just became so important. How often are we called upon to really test our own integrity and fight for what we know is right?”
Jones is excited to see Lambert in the role again.
“Greta was a dream come true,” he says. “She was really formidable, really tough. It was just a Herculean performance. It was absolutely everything I wanted it to be, and I’m over the moon that she gets to recreate it on her own turf.”
“Alabama Story” will play out on the intimate Octagon stage at ASF, Lambert’s “favorite space on Earth to be in a play,” and Jones says audiences will find it informative, emotional and, at times, humorous.
“I think people are surprised by how funny it is, but there’s something almost ridiculous about looking at a children’s book and wanting to hold a match to it and burn it,” he says.
Lambert agrees, and she looks to a daily reminder of “Alabama Story” and the story that spawned it.
“I’ve had the book The Rabbits’ Wedding as kind of a talisman on my bookshelf facing out like a picture,” she says. “It has been there for months, and it’s a great symbol for the play. It’s always amazing to me that all of this happened over a little children’s book.”
For ticket information, visit asf.net or call the ASF Box Office at 334-271-5353.