'Alabama Story' Examines Race Through Banned Children's Book

By: Ellen Petry Whalen

Topics: Local Theater

Samantha Able and Chauncy Thomas “Alabama Story” at WHAT. MICHAEL/SUZ KARCHMER PHOTO

Even in the information age, some books are still banned in parts of America. To shine a light on this, the American Library Association (ALA) forms an annual list of “the top 10 most frequently challenged books,” along with celebrating the freedom to read during their yearly “Banned Books Week,” which is coming up on Sept. 25.

Playwright Kenneth Jones brings to life the true-life censorship story of a children’s picture book in the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater’s hard-hitting and transporting “Alabama Story.”

Set in Montgomery, Ala. in 1959, the drama focuses on the dedicated and “unflappable” Alabama state librarian Emily Wheelock Reed (Valerie Stanford), who finds her book choices from the ALA’s “Notable Books” list being challenged by the grandstanding segregationist Senator E.W. Higgins (Christopher Chisholm). In particular, he takes issue with famed illustrator Garth Williams’ book “The Rabbits’ Wedding,” in which a white and a black bunny are married surrounded by their forest friends.

Playing Williams, actor Alan Campbell calmly and logically explains that there was no subversive message in his book; he only wanted to provide an artistic contrast, by using the light and dark rabbits, as a “yin-and-yang” element. Campbell notably plays a number of other minor characters, impressively transforming himself.

Stanford is self-assured with an easy-going nature as Miss Reed. However, when the senator backs the “liberal” librarian into a corner, twisting her words, Stanford’s underlying fear is demonstrable.

Cast as the villainous Senator Higgins, Chisholm is delightful to watch, using wily ways and a syrupy sweet tone to safeguard the senator’s anti-integration ideals and belief that “the South has room for only one viewpoint.”

As Thomas Franklin the reference librarian, Nathan Winkelstein’s reserved yet caring approach buoys Miss Reed when word reaches the national press about her conflict with the senator.

With its many layers and varied points of view, the play has a story within the story about Lily Whitfield (Samantha Able), the privileged daughter of a rich cotton farmer, and the hard-working black salesman Joshua Moore (Chauncy Thomas). Bumping into each other by chance, the two recount their childhood friendship when Joshua’s mother worked in “the big house,” owned by Lily’s family.

Able slowly and artfully alters her character’s rose-colored take on Southern life as she begins to acknowledge injustices between the races. As Moore, Thomas has a slow-simmering anger that grows stronger with each encounter, as the two remember their shared past very differently.

Through every wonderfully orchestrated detail, director Jeffry George has supported a thin patina of gentile civility that hides the ugliness of segregation, from the actors’ formal graces to the dialogue’s round-about approaches, costume designer Gail Astrid Buckley’s exquisitely conservative Southern flair, and Richard Wadsworth Chambers’ impressive, alabaster-colored columns that soar past the curtains, reaching for the heavens. Not native to Alabama, the state librarian stands in direct contrast to her thinly veiled Southern counterparts, with her more direct Indiana ways that hold up upon closer examination.

Interestingly, the large-scale cut-out trees framing the back of the set are reminiscent of a “To Kill a Mockingbird’s” book jacket, which is one of the most banned classic books in America, and to which the playwright gives a mention in the drama.

Projected onto the towering columns, Bailey Costa’s brilliant lighting with its shadows of unseen palladian windows shrinking with the setting sun compliments the set’s subtle grandeur.

The two-hour-long East-Coast premiere of “Alabama Story” is a beautifully inspired retelling of one small story of courage in the long battle for civil rights.

 

Details:

Alabama Story”

At Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater

Through Sept. 25

Information and reservations 508-349-9428