Inside the Playwrights Project – Kenneth Jones

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Kenneth Jones. Photo by Brian Sills

The Worlds That Jones Made

Playwright Kenneth Jones is many things — a playwright, lyricist, and librettist, to name a few. An overnight sensation he’s not. Before writing his own plays, he spent 15 years as a theater critic. Then Jones took a leap of faith — and changed his job description to playwright. His early work made a splash. But Alabama Story was his first breakout success in 2015 — a fictionalized account of the racist crusade against Garth Williams’ picture book The Rabbits Wedding in 1959After a smashing premiere in Salt Lake City, Alabama Story opened in theaters around the country – and had its regional premiere at Florida Studio Theatre in 2016. It’s been a hit ever since. Several productions were on the boards or in the wings in the spring of 2020 — when the pandemic struck. After a flurry of activity, Jones suddenly had a lot of time to kill. Then he got a call from Kate Alexander (FST’s Associate Director At-Large), about The Playwrights Project. She asked him for big ideas. And he had one. 

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Chris White and Rachel Moulton in FST’s Alabama Story. Photo by Matthew Holler

What was your trajectory to becoming a playwright?

Circuitous. As a teenager, I always wanted to be involved with theater. I was too shy to be an actor. So I thought, “OK. I’ll be a writer.” I loved words, and had a facility for language at an early age. I told my father that I wanted to be a playwright. He instantly asked, “How do you plan to make money at that?” A very practical question! I had no answer, so I decided to compromise. I majored in journalism, with the goal of becoming a theater critic. And that’s what I did for 15 years in Detroit.

Were you also writing plays during this time?

No – not for submission, anyway. You can’t be reviewing other people’s plays and pitching your own! I think that’s a conflict of interest for a critic. That being said, I did have some creative output. I began by writing lyrics, and collaborating long distance with a composer in New York City. I didn’t see any conflict in that. Other than that, I stayed in my critic lane.

What made you change lanes?

I made a decision, that’s all. I thought: “It’s now or never. I’m going to quit journalism, I’m going to try to write plays and musicals before it’s too late.” To make that happen, I moved to New York City, and wound up writing for Playbill – which specialized in theater advocacy, not criticism, so there was no conflict of interest. That was my day job. I worked on my own stuff at night.

What was your first play?

It was a musical, actually – a very traditional musical in the Rodgers and Hammerstein mode. I wanted to play by the rules so I could break them later.

Alabama Story comes to mind. Your work is consistently strong. But that really strikes me as a game-changing play.

Thank you.

How did you feel when it first hit the stage?

That happened at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. We had our first live reading – and it really felt great. Surrounded by so many creative people, I had an instant epiphany: I belong here! I realized it’s what I’d wanted as a kid. On some level, it’s what I’d always wanted. Now it was real.

Aside from the sense of belonging, were you thrilled to hear the actors speak your words?

Of course – but I wasn’t totally satisfied with those words. I still wanted to make changes. And I’ve been tweaking Alabama Story in the five years since the world premiere. For me, it’s been like one, long preview period. That’s the great thing about not publishing this play.

What’s your biggest change to Alabama Story?

There was no big change – just lots of cuts. But that’s true for everything I write. I free-write on my initial draft – and then I start trimming. I like to write fat, and keep editing down.

Do you ask for feedback on your early drafts?

Not really. Some writers like to hand over their first drafts, but I can’t do that. Before I share my stuff, it has to be good enough to share. That takes me a while.

Let’s talk about your current work for FST’s Playwrights Project. What’s the inspiration?

The seed of the idea was something I stumbled upon. In 2019, I read about a restaurant in the Deep South. It was located in a restored, 18th-century house, with a bar in the former slave quarters. That resonated with me. I put that provocative setting in my file of play ideas, but didn’t really work on it. Then, out of the blue, I got a call from Kate Alexander. She told me that FST was employing playwrights to cook up new works – and then she asked me for a pitch. So, I made my pitch using that tiny seed of a setting, with hints of characters and dramatic goals, and my idea was accepted. That’s when it really started to blossom. But it’s still a work in progress.

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Slave quarters on a Southern plantation

Have you made any progress?

Absolutely, but you can’t force it. Every play has a life of its own, and you can’t rush the process. It may have started from me reading about a real place, but it’s a work of the imagination, something wholly invented from the ground up: creating original characters and situations not based on documentary truth, but telling artistic truth. I see the new play as a family ensemble drama – an intergenerational conflict between the restaurant’s founder, who’s in her nineties; and her nephews and nieces, who are in their sixties; and their thirty-something kids. The conflict begins with the marketing decision to stop calling the bar “The Slave Quarters Lounge.” So many implications flow from that…

I can see it. Is that whitewashing history? Or killing one of the Deep South’s horrible traditions?

Exactly.

It occurs to me that Alabama Story was also set in the Deep South. Does this reflect your background?

Not at all. I’m from the Midwest, and grew up in Michigan, so I’m not a Southern boy. But there’s something about the poetry and tensions of the South that fascinate me. To me, the stories of the South are American stories. They’re universal.

What keeps you going as an artist in the time of COVID?

Just knowing we’ll get back to normal. From the ancient Greeks to today, there’s always been some kind of live performance. Theater has survived wars, revolutions, depressions, the Black Plague of the 1300s, and the AIDs crisis of the 1980s. We got through all that. We’ll get through this.

Kenneth Jones is a a playwright, lyricist, librettist, and theater advocate based in New York City. Following its 2015 premiere, Jones’ Alabama Story has been performed in 34 cities around the United States. His other musicals and plays include Two Henrys, Circa 1976, Voice of the City, and Naughty/Nice.

**Header Picture: Chris White and and Rachel Moulton in FST’s 2016 production of “Alabama Story.” Photo by Matthew Holler.