Steph Hickling Beckman, managing artistic director for Different Strokes! Performing Arts Collective, doesn’t hold back when describing the relevance of Alabama Story, her company’s first production for the current season. “It’s a play about books and censorship, right when Trump tries to ban seven words from the CDC,” she says, referring to reports that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention staff members were recently discouraged from using language such as “transgender,” “diversity” and “evidence-based” in budget documents.
“The action in Alabama Story happened 60 years ago, but the play matters because we’re not out of the woods. If we look at current events, this stuff keeps happening,” Hickling Beckman continues. “Censorship infringes on all of our civil rights.” Different Strokes! brings the timely drama to the BeBe Theatre beginning Thursday, Feb. 8.
The play draws its main plot from the true story of the “bunny book crusade” led by Alabama state Sen. E.O. Eddins Sr. In 1959, Eddins (renamed Higgins in the play) became aware of a children’s book called The Rabbits’ Wedding, which showed the marriage of a white rabbit to a black rabbit, and demanded that the title be pulled from Alabama public library shelves. He claimed that the union of two differently colored rabbits served as subtle advocacy for interracial marriage, illegal in the state at that time.
Alabama public library director Emily Wheelock Reed, an Asheville native, refused to ban the book. Alabama Story traces the protracted battle of wills that followed between the librarian and the senator from the Montgomery state library through the state legislature floor, where Higgins threatens Reed’s budget and demands her resignation.
Hickling Beckman notes that Reed, played by Molly Graves, was one of the most difficult roles she’s had to cast at Different Strokes! due to the character’s complexity. “Everybody wants to think librarians are these boring women who don’t have lives, but Emily has traveled the world — she was a librarian in Hawaii,” she explains. “We see that she can carry a sense of humor but maintain a division between her work and personal lives.”
Alabama Story complements its historical conflict with the fictional story of Joshua and Lily, interracial friends who revisit a charged episode in their past with clear parallels to The Rabbits’ Wedding. “If it is through Higgins and Alabama that we witness the antiquity of some of our laws and biases, it is through Lily and Joshua that we can understand that the issues we are dealing with today stem from our … racial bias and discrimination,” Hickling Beckman says.
The script has a lot to unpack, but Hickling Beckman had an irreplaceable assistant as she developed the work: playwright Kenneth Jones, who took a personal interest in the production after learning more about Different Strokes! and its artistic mission. Jones provided the company with discounted rights for the script and offered deeper perspective on its dialogue.
“There’s a park in the play called Oak Park, which Higgins chose to shut down entirely when the Supreme Court said he couldn’t ban blacks from visiting,” Hickling Beckman offers as an example. “Kenneth told us about going there and talking to locals about that experience of having no access to this beautiful, chained-up park — it’s his direct knowledge that we wouldn’t have known about otherwise.”
The director acknowledges that working with Jones brought challenges as well as opportunities to the rehearsal process. Less than a month before the opening in Asheville, the playwright sent along changes to the script, which had its official debut in Salt Lake City in 2015. In other cases, Hickling Beckman tweaked her initial artistic vision to reflect Jones’ detailed dramaturgical notes.
On the whole, however, Hickling Beckman says her interaction with Jones has been positive. “The passion he has about the subject is really appealing and in touch with what Different Strokes! stands for,” she says. “It’s been a great collaborative process, and it’s made me want to do more work in direct collaboration with playwrights.”
Perhaps most importantly, Jones confirmed for Hickling Beckman that Alabama Story’s essential message is one of confidence in progress. She explains that the playwright changed Eddins’ name to Higgins as an expression of hope that the senator moved on from his racist views after leaving public life. “He wants to leave the play where we can believe that Higgins landed on the right side of history,” Hickling Beckman says.
One of the play’s final scenes touchingly reinforces that wish. “Reed finds out that Higgins loves [The Adventures of] Tom Sawyer, and she gives a copy to him as a parting gift,” Hickling Beckman says. “You see him soften, and Kenneth put that part in there just so we can see that there is hope for the world.”
WHAT: Alabama Story performed by Different Strokes! Performing Arts Collective
WHERE: The BeBe Theatre, 20 Commerce St. differentstrokespac.org
WHEN: Feb. 8-24, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, at 7:30 pm. $15 opening weekend advance/$18 advance/$21 day of show