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SALT LAKE CITY — Pioneer Theatre Company has just opened the world premiere of the play "Alabama Story." It is the little-known tale of a librarian, a children’s book and segregation.
PTC’s artistic director, Karen Azenberg, has a personal connection to the playwright, Kenneth Jones.
"He actually visited me because I was working at Alabama Shakespeare Festival. He came down to do some research in the Montgomery area," Azenberg said. "So, I can honestly say I was there at the beginning of the writing of this play. It’s a wonderful story and it addresses a whole lot of issues and a civil rights theme in a new way with a different angle."
Jones came by the idea while reading the newspaper.
"I came across an obituary in May 2000 of this fierce librarian in Alabama who was challenged by segregationist senators in 1959," Jones said. "She was asked to take a book, a children’s book, off the shelf. She said, 'Wait a minute!' And I thought there were some building blocks of a play there instantly."
There was a lot to think about while creating the play and making it something that matters.
"North and South and black and white and male and female, an insider and an outsider, and I just started to explore that," Jones said. "Sort of tackled the job like a journalist tackles a job, investigating her background and going to her place of work — and really trying to get the facts, to weave the facts together and use that as a jumping-off point to create a fiction that’s about reading and about a passion for books and about American heroes we don’t know about, footnotes in American history,"
The librarian protected that book and the ability of the citizens of Montgomery to read that book. And she really stood up against not just gender and cultural and racial divides but against an entire establishment of governments. And then it's interwoven with this love story, childhood story, that I think reflects what was going on at the time.
–Karen Azenberg, Pioneer Theater Company artistic director
"It’s sort of interesting that freedom to read is an issue that affects us even today."
The play is based on real events in 1959 when an Alabama state senator took offense with the children’s book "The Rabbits’ Wedding." It begins: "Two little rabbits, a white rabbit and a black rabbit, lived together in a large forest."
"The librarian protected that book and the ability of the citizens of Montgomery to read that book," Azenberg said. "And she really stood up against not just gender and cultural and racial divides but against an entire establishment of governments.
"And then it’s interwoven with this love story, childhood story, that I think reflects what was going on at the time."
Greta Lambert plays the librarian, Emily Reed.
"I had been in the audience when there was a reading at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival when it was part of the new play project, and I was just fascinated by the characters and the story and how potent and moving that it was."
"It’s such an unknown story and a new way to look at an old issue. And the story was just so fascinating that it was all about a children’s book that caused such an uproar."
Sometimes it simply comes down to one person who stands up for freedom.
"(Emily) doesn’t mean to, but she becomes kind of a crusader."
(Emily) doesn't mean to, but she becomes kind of a crusader.
–Greta Lambert, actress who plays lead Emily Reed
Lambert had never read the book and ordered a copy, surprised, she said, that such a lovely story was the center of a controversy.
It is gratifying, she said, to be part of the production: "Number one, because it’s a new play and it’s always fun to be part of a new play, to be part of the birth of the play and the character and the story and to be presenting it for the first time.
"And the character is so passionate in a very unusual way," Lambert continued. "She’s very reserved and not really a people person; in fact, she’s kind of socially awkward, but she is so smart and so intelligent and so passionate about the book and the fact that all books should be available to all people at all times that it’s very remarkable and I’m very respectful of her."
"I think it’s very engaging and hopefully it will be fascinating to an audience, the way it is to us."
Because they understand the power of a book, members of the Utah State and Salt Lake County Library Associations are sponsoring events during the running of the play.
Wanda Huffaker did not know the book but was invited to listen to one of the first readings of the play in Utah. She said Emily Reed is an inspiration.
"She set the stage for me as chair of Intellectual Freedom (Committee) in Utah to give me the confidence to do what I do because she was a pioneer and she took chances. And she did set the stage for standing out. We could not do what we do today had there not been brave people who did what she did in the '50s and in the '60s. … It’s so important that we don’t forget what she did."
Remembering starts with the book. There were few copies in Utah; now librarians across the state have placed orders.
Azenberg called it exciting. "It is one of the things that attracted me to the story in the first place and it makes you feel good when you say, 'Yeah, I thought you might like this.' But I also think it’s a story, a message, that can’t be reinforced enough times.
Emily Reed was very much alone. She wasn't supported by the American Library Association at the time and she fought for this book and other books. She was later challenged to take Dr. King's 'Strive for Freedom' off the shelves of the Montgomery libraries; she said 'no' to that. So she became a real hero with the freedom to read and freedom of knowledge.
–Playwright Kenneth Jones
"I think it’s a play for generations," Azenberg continued. "I think if you are old enough to remember the late '50s and the early '60s and the civil rights era, it will sort of percolate in one way. And if you are young, my children only read about that in their history books. So for them to be able to experience that story on stage, I think brings a little more weight to it."
Heroes who do small things like this can be lost in history because of the lack of support on her side.
"Emily Reed was very much alone," Jones said, "She wasn’t supported by the American Library Association at the time and she fought for this book and other books. She was later challenged to take Dr. King’s 'Stride Toward Freedom' off the shelves of the Montgomery libraries; she said ‘no’ to that. So she became a real hero with the freedom to read and freedom of knowledge."
Similar scenarios exist today according to Jones
"Every librarian could tell you about people who want books pulled from the shelves or books restricted. I have heard from many Utah libraries about challenges to books in libraries throughout Utah. We were very pleased at our first read-through to have the state library of Utah here and to have Wanda Huffaker, who is a great intellectual-freedom champion in Utah."
"The Salt Lake Arts community is incredible; they support new works at all kinds of theaters here, large and small. To bring together a world premiere by an unknown author is incredibly heroic; it’s a massive undertaking. There are six people in the cast but 100 people behind the scenes. And it is incredibly inspiring. I hope audiences walk away with the idea that books can change your life, and I hope they walk away with the memory of people who passed a book along to them, whether it was their mother or their father or their sibling or their spouse or a librarian. The passing of books is a very important thing to us."
"Alabama Story" performances continue at Pioneer Memorial Theatre at the University of Utah through Jan. 24.