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“We Have Work to Do”- Alabama Story’s Cautionary Tale on Censorship at South Camden Theatre Co.

by Lisa Palena

Alabama Story, penned by Kenneth Jones, is a play inspired by true events which occurred at the height of the Civil Rights movement. Set in Montgomery, Alabama in 1959, the drama follows a dual storyline: first, of librarian Emily Wheelock Reed, whose support of the book The Rabbits’ Wedding (a controversial children’s story of a black rabbit marrying a white rabbit) angers state senator E.W. Higgins and second, of the reunion of childhood friends Lily Whitfield, a wealthy white woman and Joshua Moore, an African-American man. The two storylines happen in tandem and never officially intersect, although there are moments where each plays off the other.


When I arrived at South Camden Theatre Company, I noticed that the stage was set in elegant simplicity, with an office desk in the center and two large bookcases flanking it on either side. Music from the show’s era was playing softly in the background, and the sizable crowd was chatting quietly. Artistic director Dawn Varava was going from aisle to aisle handing out slips of paper for audience members to write down questions, as the author was in attendance and holding a talk back following the show. It was evident that word had spread about this impactful work after the first two performances, and this practically sold out crowd was the proof.


The story itself opens with Garth Williams (the author of The Rabbits’ Wedding), played by Eric Rupp. He was joined by his fellow castmates one by one, who each introduced a piece of the story in a narration style reminiscent of many familiar dramatic pieces. It worked well to set the stage and give the audience a brief insight into the characters they would meet throughout the show. After this introduction, theatergoers were immediately transported to Emily Reed’s (Anne Allen) office, where we learn that she is fairly new as the State Librarian. Her assistant, Thomas Franklin (Adam Brooks) brings her the news that the conservative newspaper in Montgomery has published a piece condemning the Alabama Public Library for its offering of The Rabbits’ Wedding in circulation.


The stage rotates and we are transported to a local park, showcased through the presence of a green bench with the statement, “Whites Only” painted onto it. Lily Whitfield (Emily-Grace Murray) is approached by Joshua Moore (Maurice Tucker). We learn that Moore and his mother were servants in Whitfield’s childhood home. Moore and Whitfield were close friends growing up, despite their social standing, but they haven’t seen or spoken to one another in over twenty years.


The play subtly shifts back and forth between these two storylines, where each character is on a search for justice and truth, although their ideals do not always align. As Thomas Franklin notes in the introduction, “this is a story about character,” and this dedicated cast is easily able to bring those characters to life while offering a valuable message in the fight for freedom and equality.


Eric Rupp does an incredible job balancing multiple characters, and is perhaps most notable in his portrayal of author Garth Williams. As Williams, he guides the show to its impressive ending and serves as the knowledgeable narrator archetype. His time as Representative Bobby Crone is also significant, where he plays a key role in trying to dissuade Senator Higgins from pursuing a publicized battle over censorship. He is able to effortlessly portray both characters, and for a brief moment, I had to question if this was, in fact, the same actor.


Anne Allen offers an absolutely brilliant performance as Reed. Her strength of conviction was the heart of the show, and her indomitable spirit never wavered. She was the perfect foil to Senator E.W. Higgins (Gene Dale), and she had a natural, easygoing chemistry with Brooks’ character, Thomas.


Stacked against Allen was Gene Dale, and he clearly relished the challenge of playing the villainous senator. His large, loud personality deftly contrasted Allen’s quiet, stubborn presence in their many scenes together.


Adam Brooks shines at Thomas Franklin, the fierce defender to Emily Reed. His character perfectly serves to represent the citizens of Montgomery and he is Reed’s largest ally in the show. As Franklin, Brooks showcases an abundance of Southern charm and hospitality. His comedic timing is unmatched, which only adds to the chemistry he shares with Allen in their various scenes.


In the secondary plot, Emily-Grace Murray steals every scene. Her character, Lily Whitfield, is aware, but unwilling to admit that she recognizes the systemic racism present in Alabama. In her scenes, Murray perfectly encapsulates her character’s unease and discomfort any time her childhood friend Joshua brings up their social standing or his worries about the way he and other blacks are treated. Her scenes are weighted and emotional, and Murray showcases a wide range of feelings and sentiments throughout the piece.


Maurice Tucker, as Joshua Moore, is a quiet rock of patience and dignity. His scenes with Murray are some of the strongest points in the show, providing a private look into the similar storyline present in The Rabbits’ Wedding. He balances out Murray’s emotions with a calm stoicness, always remaining kind and respectful for his childhood friend.


Director Connie Norwood and her production team deserve all the accolades for the presentation of the show. The rotating set, designed by Robert Bingaman (who also served as director of marketing) was the best decision for this intimate space. It allowed for swift scene changes, led by some of the cast and backstage crew member Sam Coyle, and the modest aesthetic emphasized the focus on the actors. Costumes and props, by Donyl Allen and Pam Staley, were flawlessly suited to the time period. And the technical elements of light, sound, and beyond, handled by Andrew Cowles, Ashley Reiter, and Joshua Samors created a unified picture. Stage manager August Fen-Deluca made sure all elements ran smoothly behind the scenes.


The story is set 60 years ago, but as Emily Reed notes in one scene, “we (still) have work to do.” At its core, Alabama Story asks audience goers to grapple with their feelings about tolerance and racial equality. It is not a show to be missed. Alabama Story runs weekends through October 1st and tickets can be purchased online at www.southcamdentheatre.org or at the door.



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