Kenneth Jones is coming home again. The New York-based playwright returns to Oakland University for a staged reading of his breakout play, “Alabama Story” on August 21, when the former theater journalist, editor and reporter at playbill.com, who also worked at The Oakland Press and as chief theater critic at The Detroit News, presents his dramatization about a real-life librarian defending the freedom to read.
“It’s really great to reconnect with the theater where I went to see so many student plays,” said Jones, who graduated from Groves High School before earning a BA in communications from Oakland University. “Alabama Story” – produced 40 times around the country and was recently published – will be directed by John Rutherford of Barebones Theatre Productions and director of theater at Groves.
Jones wrote for the school paper in high school and college. “I was always covering theater and entertainment,” he said. “I was very addicted to that as a kid.”
Going to the Fisher Theatre to see national tours like Annie transported him. “It was magical with conveyor belts and moving walkways. I fell in love with it.”
He became a playwright because he was too shy to be an actor. “In junior high and high school, I was doing a lot of creative writing and going to see community theater at the Will-O-Way Theatre,” he said. “As a gay kid, it was an escape.”
Other fond memories include local theaters like the Hilberry and The Attic. “Plays introduced me to all my heroes like Cy Coleman and Charles Strouse,” Jones explained. “I gobbled them up and writing dramatically became second nature.”
Birmingham's Baldwin Public Library also had an influence on him. “I picked a playwright every summer and I would sit for hours and read Edward Albee or Thornton Wilder,” he said. “I would enter their world from a literary point of view.”
“Alabama Story” was inspired by an obituary he stumbled upon for Emily Wheelock Reed, the former state librarian for Alabama who tried to protect a children’s book, “The Rabbits’ Wedding,” from being taken off the shelves in 1959 that had a black bunny marrying a white bunny.
Reed, who had a degree from the University of Michigan and once worked at the Detroit Public Library, had been challenged by a segregationist state senator.
“It instantly seemed dramatic to me. It had conservative and liberal, Black and White, North and South, male and female. It’s a censorship story with a lot of humor about human beings that were flawed and funny and sort of brutal with each other.”
His play raises the question: How do you behave when your back is up against the wall?
Jones said there is a kind streak in the senator and Reed gets defensive, so there is a flawed streak in the librarian who became internationally famous in real life, with an obit in the New York Times, while the senator has been largely forgotten today.
“Alabama Story” has an “Our Town” quality, he said. “It’s highly theatrical. I wanted to pep it up like a children’s picture book. It’s like storytelling with a separate storyline that adds to the original tale. I wanted to jam all of my favorite kinds of plays together like political themes, courtroom drama and a love story.”
Before the pandemic shutdown, the play was being performed at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, said Jones, who has written other plays and musicals.
“I am doing exactly what I want to be doing,” he said. “It’s the classic story: If you leap, the net will appear.”
Story: Jeanine Matlow
Photo: Alex Weisman