The staging of “Alabama Story” at Detroit’s Marlene Boll Theatre not only marks the Michigan premiere of the well-regarded play about a nearly forgotten censorship incident during the Civil Rights era, but it is also a homecoming for Oakland County native and playwright Kenneth Jones
Jones, who grew up in Southfield and Beverly Hills, came to town to see the Theater Company at University of Detroit Mercy perform the six-character play during dress rehearsal and opening night, sharing observations with the director.
Although Jones has written several plays since he left Michigan years ago, “Alabama Story” is his first to be performed in the Great Lakes State.
For Jones, who lives in New York City, seeing his work on stage in his hometown has been affecting.
“It’s been quite emotional,” he says. “I am filled with many complicated feelings returning to town as a playwright after 13 years of being a theater critic in the Detroit area, having moved away in 1998 to focus on dramatic writing.
“I came of age as a theatergoer here — and as a critic and reporter — and in turn, as a dramatist. The plays and people I witnessed here helped form my foundation as a playwright.”
“Alabama Story” explores censorship and racism in the Deep South during the late 1950s, focusing on the attempts of segregationist senator E.O. Eddins (his name is changed in the play) to ban a children’s book that he contends promotes racial mixing. Defending the book, “The Rabbits’ Wedding,” is the tireless state librarian, Emily Wheelock Reed.
The book — in which a black rabbit and a white rabbit marry — was written and illustrated by Garth Williams, well-known for his illustrations in “Charlotte’s Web” and the series of Laura Ingalls Wilder books.
Jones, 51, describes the play as “a censorship story told through the lens of the Civil Rights movement, and not the other way around,” with fictional characters included to add heart and explore real-life tensions of segregation and racism beyond books and politics.
Jones, an avid newspaper reader and former freelance theater critic for The Detroit News and The Oakland Press, discovered the story while reading Reed’s obituary in The New York Times in 2000. The play would fully take hold of his imagination years later with extensive research in Montgomery, Alabama, the setting of the real-life drama.
“When you’re looking for ideas for a play, obituaries are a great source,” he says. “They have a beginning, a middle and an end. You pick and choose what to use. I just stumbled upon Reed’s obituary. I instantly thought it was a play. I instantly saw Garth Williams as a character in the play.”
“Alabama Story,” he says, encompasses some of his favorite types of plays: courtroom thriller, memory play, romance and historical drama. For Jones, some elements of the real story were so bold that they struck him as cut-outs in a pop-up children’s book, something he sought to recreate on stage.
The illustrator, Williams, narrates the story, speaking directly to the audience, and takes on multiple roles in what Jones calls the “Deep South of the Imagination.” (Those roles became separate parts in the Detroit production.) While the primary themes are heavy, Jones lets the story unfold in an engaging, charming manner.
Although “Alabama Story” occurs far from Michigan, Jones weaves in references to Detroit. One of the fictional characters, Joshua, an African-American, visits Montgomery from Detroit, where he works for Vernors. He’s also part of a love story with another fictional character, Lily Whitfield, whom he has known since childhood.
“Vernors represents something sweet, and I wanted to be super specific,” Jones says. “When (the character) says Vernors, everyone knows what it is. It got a big laugh in Sarasota ... It was a question of how to illuminate the contrast without saying ‘I’m from the North.’ I wanted him to leave Alabama and go north. Detroit often pops to mind during the Civil Rights movement. Rosa Parks ended up there.”
“Alabama Story” was a 2014 finalist in the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference and a 2016 nominee for the Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award. Before opening in Michigan, “Alabama Story” had its world premiere in Salt Lake City in 2015, and this year has been performed in Florida, Massachusetts and Wisconsin.
Jones says he’s hopeful “Alabama Story” will continue to draw interest from other theater companies in Michigan and elsewhere. As part of his homecoming, he visited his alma mater, Birmingham’s Groves High School, where he chatted with advanced theater students about his writing career and the play. He also had lunch with two “important influences” on his life as a writer: teachers Wendy Cutler and Ken Ciszewski, who both retired from Groves and are married to one another.
“The play is very much a marriage of history and love of literature, and Ken and Wendy helped establish my interest in those worlds with their passionate and engaging approach to teaching,” he says.
“I was thrilled to meet them again, and talk about old times, to tell them they mattered and to see them attend the show. It felt like a full-circle moment to sit behind them at the show and see them moved by the play.”
Greg Tasker is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.
by Kenneth Jones
7:30 p.m. Thur.-Sa.; 3 p.m. Sun.
Marlene Boll Theatre
1401 Broadway, Detroit
Tickets: $25, adults; $22, seniors; $10, veterans and students