(Above: Nancy West plays courageous librarian Emily Wheelock Reed in The Very Little Theatre’s production of Alabama Story; photo by LifeSlice Photography.)

By Randi Bjornstad

The Very Little Theatre’s latest play — based on a children’s book by noted author and illustrator Garth Williams — is titled Alabama Story.

Williams’ book title is The Rabbits’ Wedding, and the storyline of both book and play is the marriage between two rabbits, one black and one white, published in April 1958 by HarperCollins, one of the premier publishers in the United States.

Within a year, the 32-page book had become a cause célèbre for anti-integration supporters in the South, notably in Alabama, where state Sen. Edward Oswell Eddins and the White Citizens Council of Montgomery, Ala., declared it ” propaganda for integration and intermarriage” and demanded that it be banned from all library shelves in the state.

The director of the State Library Agency, Emily Wheelock Reed, took on the anti-censorship battle as part of her job to provide local libraries with books that they requested to make available to their patrons.

In order to circumvent the state’s censorship laws, she handled the situation by placing The Rabbits’ Wedding “in reserve” instead of on the regular library shelves and making it available by request.

By so doing, Reed avoided a total ban of the book, saying that “We have had difficulty with the book, but we have not lost our integrity.”

Later the same year, Reed again drew the ire of segregationists and in Alabama when a reading list prepared by the State Library Agency included a book written by Martin Luther King, Jr., titled Strike Toward Freedom.

Playwright Kenneth Jones turned The Rabbits’ Wedding into his play, Alabama Story, in 2015, setting the story in 1959 Alabama, saying he was inspired by Reed’s convictions and actions as they were described in her obituary in the New York Times. Reed died on May 19, 2000, at age 90 years.

Alabama Story at The Very Little Theatre

Williams’ play as a small cast, and the VLT production is directed by veteran actor and director Stanley Coleman. The plot centers on two childhood friends, a black man and a white woman, who reunite as adults, having shared many childhood memories as schoolchildren but experiencing different cultural experiences in adulthood.

Their resumed friendship provides a stark contrast to the divisive and often violent actions experienced in Alabama in the late 1950s and beyond.

Beyond that, the play has a subtext of its own, described as “a love letter, to the freedom to read and to librarians.”

The VLT production features Scott Smith as playwright Garth Williams, with Sabrina Gross and Lily Whitfield and Quinn Vasbinder as Joshua Moore. Heroic librarian Emily Reed is played by Nancy West, with Steve Wehmeier as Sen. Higgins. The cast also includes Daniel Sarfati as Thomas Franklin, Michael Hoekstra as Bobby Crone, and Bruce Schertell as Herschel Webb.

When: Evenings at 7:30 p.m. on March 29-30, April 5-6, and April 11-13; matinees at 2 p.m. on March 31, April 7, and April 14

Where: The Very Little Theatre, 2350 Hilyard St., Eugene

Tickets: $26 except $21 on Thursday, April 11; available through the VLT box office or by telephone from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, or online at thevlt.com