Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
At first glance, Head Librarian of Alabama Emily Reed fits that description quite well, in her conservative, color-matched to a T outfits where nary a wrinkle invades. However, as Kenneth Jones' Alabama Story begins to unfold in its fully engrossing, highly educating West Coast premiere at City Lights Theatre Company, we soon learn there is nothing out of touch or meek about this keeper of the state's library system in 1959. As the chief "protector of the books," hers is a clear mission to ensure Alabamians get to read what they want to readeven if a loud-mouthed, segregationist state senator thinks he knows better what they should (and especially should not) read.
As the 1950s are winding down in Birmingham, the city is still on edge and reeling from Rosa Parks, bus boycotts, church bombings, and the murders of four innocent girls. The white backlash is evident everywhere, from public parks that are locked because they have been ordered to integrate, to libraries (and of course schools) that are still segregated and separate.
Into this atmosphere, Emily Reed is in the midst of her second year at the Alabama State Library, recently located in the majestic marble and granite State Archive Building and right across from the (all-white) State Assembly. From the American Library Association comes the annual "Noble Book List," an inventory she uses to recommend books to all the local libraries across the state. In 1959, one of those books listed is by well-known and much-loved children's writer/illustrator Garth Williams, entitled "The Rabbits' Wedding," a book about a moonlit matrimony of a black rabbit and a white rabbit attended by all their cute, forest animal friends. As our story opens, it is this book that Senator E. W. Higginsmember of the library's funding committee and also member of the local White Citizens' Councildecides must be removed from the stacks because it is "a vehicle to promote integration to our youth, our impressionable youth."
This 2015 play by Kenneth Jones is introduced and occasionally narrated by Mr. Williams, the author of the children's book. The play is based on Mr. Jones' research of real-life events, and proceeds on one level much like a live documentaryone that has the mounting tension of a courtroom drama, the dark truths of the Jim Crow South, and yet also the gentle manners and humor of a bygone era when life somehow kept going even as the world often turned ugly.
As the most outspoken member of the State Library Finance Committee (and a self-proclaimed lover of books, especially "Tom Sawyer"), Senator Higgins becomes more and more vocal and aggressive in his public fight to ban "The Rabbits' Wedding." But the more be bellows in front of local reporters, the more the ever-postured and poised Emily Reed continues quietly but firmly to stand her ground. Local, national and international reactions flame the fires of the controversy, with the play revealing bit by bit the history in a manner much like an ongoing real-time newsreel.
What makes Kenneth Jones' intriguing and important history lessonone I dare say almost no one in the audience has ever readeven more powerful and impactful is the parallel fictional story the playwright intertwines with the real-life events. In a nearby park, one of those with locked gates and with a bench nearby marked with a "Whites Only" sign, sits a thirty-something woman with that look of Southern small-town privilege (white of course). She by chance recognizes a passing man carrying a Bible as a childhood friend, a face from her past who happens to be black. This initial reunion of the two continues over the next few months with both being periodic visitors to Birmingham (she, to visit her sick father and he, to support ongoing voter registration drives among the black population). Their meetings, no longer by chance but on purpose, lead to an onion's skins being carefully, peeled away as memories begin to flow of the last time the two saw each other at the age of twelve. Their individual and combined stories of deep-set, Southern prejudices and injustices that touched their lives as children and are still affecting them in adulthood are a moving background story that gives the library docudrama a more human, emotional dimension.
Karen DeHart brilliantly portrays librarian Emily Reed, displaying reserved dignity, clarity of purpose, and depth of convictions from the top of her perfectly set hair to the tips of her close-toed heels. She stands with shoulders proudly back and with a face that rarely reveals anything but a belief that what she is doing is a job that must be done and would be done by any librarian in her position. Everything about Ms. DeHart's Emily says that her exterior of quiet humility is governed by a courageous stubbornness to face up to whatever foe comes her way and threatens the love of her life, books, and her purpose in life, maintaining their access to the public.
And that foe could hardly be more realistically embodied than in the brash, brazen, ego-centered Senator Higgins, given almost larger-than-life presence by Erick Gandolfi. His loud, Southern blasts echo memories some of us in the audience have of the likes of George Wallace as his gracious, big-smile charm one moment suddenly gives way to his no-holes-barred, hate-filled attacks the next.
Joining Emily as background support in her fight with the senator is her assistant, Thomas Franklin, a lover of history and archives just beginning his career and himself coming from a family of seething segregationists. Jeremy Ryan is the "bookish, peculiar, twenty-eight-year-old" who dodges in and out of scenes to assist the woman who increasingly becomes his hero and role model, himself becoming ever bolder in voicing clearly who really is in ways very different from the dying father he now cares for.
In the parallel story of old friends' meetings, Bezachin Jifar is a somewhat serious African-American man with a quiet sense of inner strength who increasingly reveals both his own courage and convictions for change as well as the long-held pains of an event that disrupted his and his mother's lives when he was twelve. His friend of twenty years ago is now a late '50s housewife who dresses when sitting on a park bench in skirts full of big roses or lemons, wearing white gloves and pill-box hats (just some of the period-perfect costume designs of Anna Chase).
Maria Giere Marquis is a throw-back to Southern women of another time, one whose drawl is attracting and who quickly changes subjects to the weather when a question or reference is made to something uncomfortable that she does not want to address. Nothing short of wonderful is her performance in resurrecting this image of the Southern belle of the '50s as she dodges showing signs of her own still-held prejudices, as she fights to keep hidden truths from her past that she does not want to admit, and as she struggles with feelings of attraction she knows she should not have and about which she must not speak.
Rounding out this talented ensemble is Steve Lambert, who plays a number of roles, from the soft-spoken and folksy author of the controversial book (Garth Williams) to an old Alabama politician whose age-induced wisdom is helping him let go (or at least move beyond) of his own feelings of racial prejudice. Mr. Lambert also plays a local, somewhat sympathetic reporter out to interview Emily and the hate-filled passerby who growls when seeing Lily talking in public with Joshua.
Lisa Mallette directs the duo-stories that often are playing out simultaneously on the white columned stage before us (designed by Ron Gasparinetti). Her eye ensures that scenes flow seamlessly between the stories, being careful that the didactic nature of the script does not become so "teacher-y" as to lose the emotional power of the stories unfolding. George Psarras contributes greatly to the feeling of the times and the religious pulls of the geography with a music and sound design that includes haunting guitar notes singing a moving "Just as I Am" (a Southern Baptist standard) and a tinny radio belting boldly "Dixie."
At one point, playwright Kenneth Jones ensures that Emily makes it clear that this 1959 story is not just a little-told history lesson but is in fact currently relevant. The librarian declares, "I believe that the free flow of information is the best way to resolve the issues ... of the world." As freedom of the press seems now to be attacked on almost a daily basis through the president's Fake News Awards or his constant tweets attacking individual journalists, we should also not forget that there are still lists of books forbidden being published by local and state legislators. The goal remains sixty years later to try and force some libraries in schools and townships across America to remove those books from the hands and eager minds of children.
Congratulations to City Light Theatre Company for choosing this very important play speaking to our times and reminding us to be ever resistant and courageous against would-be censors, as was one not-so-meek Alabama librarian in 1959.
Alabama Story, through February 18, 2018, at City Lights Theater Company, 529 South Second Street, San Jose CA. Tickets are available online at cltc.org or by calling 408-295-4200 Monday - Friday, 1-5 p.m.