'Alabama Story' opens Ensemble's new season
Cleveland Heights’ Ensemble Theatre is set to begin its 39th consecutive season, offering it’s signature mix of classic American plays and definitive contemporary works.
"This coming season's theme, ‘The Future is Bright,’ is filled with meaning," said Ensemble’s Executive Artistic Director Celeste Cosentino. "With the culmination of continuity of our space and location, to collaborating and creating a vision for the future of this corner, each one of our upcoming shows speaks to that sense of community and outlook to the days ahead."
The season opens with Kenneth Jones’ historical play “Alabama Story,” which will make its Ohio premiere on Ensemble’s Main Stage on Sept. 7. The play is based on the true story of the attempted censorship of a children’s book at the dawn of the Civil Rights movement.
Set in 1959, the play centers on Alabama State Librarian Emily Wheelock Reed as she faces off with State Sen. E.W. Higgins, who is determined to get the popular book The Rabbits’ Wedding off the shelves of Alabama libraries for the crime of portraying a black rabbit marrying a white rabbit. The book’s writer, Garth Williams, serves as the narrator and guide to the play that also portrays the story of two childhood friends—Joshua, who is black, and Lily, who is white—as they reconnect two decades after a dramatic separation.
The play has received American playwriting accolades, including being a finalist for the 2014 Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, and a nominee for the 2016 Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award.
Jones said he wrote the play after reading Reed’s obituary in 2000. “I instantly saw her struggle as the stuff of drama, filled with contrasts: black and white, north and south, insider and outsider, male and female, open and closed, free and restricted,” said Jones. “And Emily Reed and Senator E.O. Eddins (the inspiration for Higgins) were two bigger-than-life forces with a gift for rhetoric. Great theater characters.”
Given that Heights Libraries recently purchased Coventry P.E.AC.E. Campus, home to Ensemble (as well as other arts and nonprofit organizations), a play about the important role libraries can and have played in service o their respective communities seems a good fit to open Ensemble’s new season.
“I think this play speaks to how libraries, like theaters, can be culture makers and agents for change and inclusion in their communities,” said Cosentino.
With “Alabama Story,” Ensemble continues its mission of casting Cleveland talent, with the incomparable Anne McEvoy portraying Emily Wheelock Reed. Recently seen in Ensemble’s production of “The Hairy Ape,” Joseph Milan will play Sen. Higgins, and Cody Steele will be making his Ensemble debut as Reed’s assistant, Thomas.
Eugene Sumlin will also make his Ensemble debut in this production. He’ll portray Joshua, alongside Adrienne Jones as Lily. Craig Joseph, who wowed audiences last season in Ensemble’s production of “Well,” and as Louis in both parts of “Angels in America,” rounds out the cast as Garth Williams, the real-life illustrator and author of The Rabbits’ Wedding.
In conjunction with Ensemble’s production of “Alabama Story,” Heights Libraries has ordered extra copies of The Rabbits’ Wedding.
“Alabama Story” runs Sept. 7–30 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., in the Coventry P.E.A.C.E. Campus. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Tyler Whidden, playwright and associate artistic director at Ensemble Theatre, is the director of "Alabama Story." He also co-hosts "The Cleveland Stage Podcast."