CHS to address censorship, segregation in ‘Alabama Story’

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MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Columbia High School’s 100-seat Black Box Theater will be filled with theatergoers from Nov. 16 to 19, when the Parnassian Society debuts its production of “Alabama Story,” a play by New York City playwright Kenneth Jones. The CHS production is the play’s high school debut, after premiering at the Pioneer Theater Company in Salt Lake City, Utah, in early 2015 and in regional theaters around the country.

Originally written for a cast of six, the CHS production has been adjusted to have as many student actors involved as possible, expanding to include approximately 15.

“We want to involve as many kids as possible,” Director Steve Stubelt, one half of the husband-wife adviser team for the drama club, told the News-Record at a play rehearsal on Nov. 2. “So when there’s a flashback of someone talking about their mother, we have his mother walk out.”

Stubelt has been directing the Parnassian Society’s plays for the last 15 years, putting on classics like “Our Town” and newer plays like “The Laramie Project.” When the fall productions began 15 years back, the Black Box Theater had not yet been built.

“We’ve done things that are a little more edgy,” Stubelt said. “We can do things that are smaller here.”

The play’s author visited CHS on Oct. 30 to work with the young thespians.

“He was a theater critic,” Stubelt said of Jones. “And then, as he was writing about theater, he was working on his own plays.”

Inspiration for “Alabama Story” came when Jones read an obituary for the play’s central character in the New York Times in 2000. All the elements of a story he wanted to tell were there.

“Alabama Story” chronicles the tenure of Emily Reed, the director of the Alabama Public Library Service Division from 1959 to 1960. Reed challenged censorship and segregation when she allowed “The Rabbits’ Wedding,” a children’s book by author and illustrator Garth William, to be put on the shelves in the state’s central library, despite segregationists protesting the book.

Williams’ book, intended for children between the ages of 3 and 7, tells the story of the wedding of two rabbits that is attended by all the animals of the forest; segregationists took issue with the book because one rabbit has white fur and the other has black fur. The Montgomery Home News, a publication of the White Citizens Council in Montgomery, Ala., criticized “The Rabbits’ Wedding,” saying it promoted racial integration. In response, Reed put the book on reserve shelves, which meant that only local librarians who visited Montgomery could request it. She said that was not equal to banning the book, and refused to answer questions about racial integration.

“We talk a lot about race at Columbia, given the student population,” CHS English teacher Janet Bustrin, the other Parnassian Society adviser, told the News-Record at the Nov. 2 rehearsal. “This is something new and different, and everybody can see themselves in it.”

The Parnassian Society began in the early 1900s as a dramatic poetry reading club, and evolved over the years into one of the school’s most popular extracurricular activities; it puts on small plays in the fall. Bustrin said that students from all circles audition and get involved with the show, theater club members and football players alike are in the cast.

“They come from everywhere,” Bustrin said. “We start with lighting and sound and working with actors, and then at dress rehearsal with the costumes and props it morphs into a show. The kids see it go from something unbelieveable to turning the corner and really becoming their character.”

While the play is set 58 years in the past, Bustrin said that the themes it deals with are as relevant as ever today, making it an easy choice as the the Parnassian Society’s 2017 show.

“Book banning is still going on,” she said. “Race relations are still huge issues today. This has a nice message about not backing down and standing up for your values.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic