Challenge and Change with Kenneth Jones

Kenneth Jones has always enjoyed theatre. For decades, he was an active voice in theatrical journalism, reporting on and writing reviews for shows across the Detroit area. Then, he decided to make a career change.

Kenneth Jones. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Today, in addition to writing about theatre, he writes for theatre. His play, Alabama Story, has been produced by theatres across the country, (including FST, where it received its Regional Premiere in 2016). Jones also has several new projects in the hopper, including Last Call, a three-act family drama currently in development with FST’s Playwright Collective.

We sat down with Jones to learn more about Last Call and how he made the jump from audience member to author.

Before becoming a playwright, yourself, you worked for many years as a theatre critic and advocate. Does that journalistic background ever influence your creative output as a playwright? Does your inner critic come out during the play creation process?

I think my background as a theater journalist and feature writer prepared me to be a playwright in two ways. For 20 years, I would see at least two plays or musicals a week, and I was obligated to think about structure, goals, characters, language, dialogue, and more. That all sinks in. Journalism is also storytelling. Articles and reviews have a beginning, a middle, and an end – just like a play. I wasn’t allowed to baffle readers as a journalist, and I carry that over in my playwriting.

What inspired you to shift gears and starting writing plays of your own?

It was simply time. I had the urge to be creative for many years but chose not to pursue it. I felt that it was a conflict of interest – pitching plays to producers and theaters I was reviewing? Never. When the paper I was working for as a free-lancer cut back on its arts coverage, it was the signal I needed. It was time to quit and pursue playwriting.

I moved to New York City and ended up getting a day job at Playbill, where there was no conflict of interest because I wasn’t reviewing anybody. I could be a playwright on the side, and it finally became my primary job, in my forties. I was a late bloomer, to be sure.

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

Your breakout hit was Alabama Story, a play about the conflict that emerges when a children’s book stirs the passions of a segregationist senator and a no-nonsense  librarian. FST produced it as part of our 2016 Winter Mainstage Season. Tell us more about your journey with that play.

In May 2000, I read the obituary of a librarian who had been persecuted in 1959 Alabama because she protected a children’s picture book about a black bunny rabbit that marries a white bunny rabbit. The moment I read it, it seemed like a play. Part courtroom drama, part romance, part social justice play, and part memory play. It was a joyful ride that I wrote in pieces over several years.

It’s had about 40 productions so far. I’m lucky to have seen about eight of them. The play’s “definitive” script was fully produced in March 2020 by Alabama Shakespeare Festival. The play ran two of its three weeks before COVID-19 shut the theater down. Heartbreaking. But it was gratifying to see Montgomery audiences cheering on a play set in their own backyard that addresses painful history.

Tell us more about your latest play in development with FST – Last Call.

Last Call at the Old Slave Quarters Lounge is set in a family-run, white-tablecloth restaurant in the Deep South in the days following Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in 2005. The title is inspired by a real bar whose name was later removed by the owners of the establishment. When I read about this offensive name, I thought it would make a great setting for a play filled with conflict. I imagined three generations of a family, each having a different view of systemic racism and white privilege in their town, which has a population that is over 50 percent African American.

Kenneth Jones speaks at an FST Forums Panel about Alabama Story.

Though they’re set 50 years apart, it appears both Alabama Story and Last Call deal with very similar themes of change and intolerance in the Deep South. What is it about these themes that keeps you returning to them?

Racism and genocide are America’s primary wounds, and White culpability is rarely addressed in our culture. I wanted to write about white people having serious, painful, and risky conversations that echo the kind of discussions many families are having during the holidays.

The challenge is to make these characters complex, funny, humane, and loving – and not simply be mouthpieces for ideas. I’m interested in revealing behavior and personalities of people who have done damage, who deny damage, and who want to fix damage. I want laughs, tension, secrets, fights, and romance. I don’t want just one thing in my plays – I want all things.

Kenneth Jones is a a playwright, lyricist, librettist, and theatre advocate based in New York City. Following its 2015 premiere, Jones’ Alabama Story has been produced at least 40 times across the United States. His other work includes Two Henrys, Circa 1976, Voice of the City, and Naughty/Nice.

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