Rebecca Alice Jennings, a legendary figure in the Birmingham theatre community whose career spanned seven decades, died on Nov. 27 after a series of illnesses. She was 85 years old. A memorial service was held on Dec. 4 at Grace Episcopal Church in Woodlawn.
Beginning in the 1940s, Jennings served in a variety of capacities, including director, producer and set designer, on hundreds of local shows. She celebrated her 80th birthday in May 2003 by directing her final show, a production of Tom Jones based on the Henry Fielding novel, at Birmingham Festival Theatre.
Jennings was a founding member of the Town and Gown Theatre and a founding board member for both the Birmingham Civic Opera and the Birmingham Civic Ballet. Perhaps her greatest impact came over the course of her long career teaching drama and speech in local schools, including 20 years at Banks High School. Many of her former students, who often referred to her as “Miss J,” were present at her memorial service.
Jennings was also a rare and much-loved personality, a true free spirit and free thinker whose home on Southside, which she once shared with artist and scenic designer London Bridges, was a destination for generations of Birmingham actors, artists, writers and filmmakers. “Becky was one of Birmingham’s last truly great bohemians,” according to Judy Jones, Jennings’s long-time friend and companion. Jennings refused to allow her illnesses and increasing frailty to stop her from enjoying her friends or going on long vacations with Jones.
Jennings’ eulogy was delivered by friend and collaborator Julian Brook, who met Jennings in 1958, in the early days of the Center Players at Birmingham’s Jewish Community Center. Jennings and Bridges, according to Brook, helped the Players stage their first-ever musical, Guys and Dolls. “Without Becky and London, that show would not have happened,” Brook says. “Becky taught us to improvise, to think out of the box, to do not with what you had but in spite of what you had. A grand, well-equipped theatre might be a great place to put on a show, but not a good place to learn. Becky liked challenges, and she liked to challenge others.”
A Birmingham native, Jennings earned a bachelor’s degree in theatre from the University of Montevallo and a master’s degree from the University of Denver. She worked in New York City in the mid 1940s and, according to Jones, was acknowledged for her contributions in Burns Mantel’s Best Plays of 1946 and 1947. Jennings received a Standing Ovation Award from the Birmingham Area Theatre Alliance in 2008. Memorial gifts may be made to the Birmingham Area Theatre Alliance c/o Burt Brosowsky at 4138 Crossings Lane, Birmingham, AL 35242.