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THEATER

Wrongs of the South

Playwright Alfred Uhry once again turns to his family history of Jewish life in Atlanta for a tale of prejudices.

October 11, 1998|Barbara Isenberg | Barbara Isenberg is a frequent contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — When playwright Alfred Uhry's mother was a junior at Wellesley, she spent New Year's Eve back home in Atlanta with a young man who worked for her father. They had a quarrel, after which she returned to school and ignored his persistent pursuit. When he wrote her a note trying to apologize, she tore it up.

She did, however, keep the torn letter. That souvenir of his parents' courtship, augmented by memory and imagination, is at the heart of Uhry's romantic comedy, "The Last Night of Ballyhoo." Starring Rhea Perlman, Harriet Harris and Peter Michael Goetz, the Tony-winning play opens today at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills.

Uhry, 61, has again chronicled what he knows best. Much as his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Driving Miss Daisy," was rooted in memories of his grandmother and her longtime black chauffeur, so does "Ballyhoo" re-create faded rituals of his parents' era. For "Parade," which opens at Lincoln Center here in December, Uhry again shapes universal tales from the fabric of Atlanta's rich Jewish history.

"Ballyhoo" began as a commission from the 1996 Cultural Olympiad in Atlanta and focuses on what Uhry calls "the last time Atlanta was in the international spotlight"--December 1939, the time of the world premiere of "Gone With the Wind." It was also when Hitler was invading Poland, which offered the playwright a larger context for his story of Jews who were not comfortable being Jews, and the prejudices they nourished and fought.

"I was always aware of the dichotomy of being a Jewish Southern boy and wanting to be the center of things in high school," Uhry recalls during a rehearsal break for "Parade." And, he says, he was similarly aware "that there were clearly in our city two kinds of Jews--'us and them.' 'Them' were of Eastern origin, wore yarmulkes and were conservative. It was a very interesting prejudice, and one I never understood."

In "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," named after the German Jewish social event that thrived in Atlanta from the 1930s to the 1950s, Uhry alters family history here and there to create the Freitag family, assimilated German Jews often as intolerant toward Eastern European Jews as the non-Jewish community was toward Jews. The romance of Sunny and Joe, German Jew and Russian Jew, is as much a cultural duel as a romantic one.

Uhry's own family's German Jewish ancestors--on both sides--settled in the South in the mid-1800s and were more overtly Southern than Jewish. Like the Freitags, the Uhrys had Easter egg hunts and a Christmas tree. While they belonged to a synagogue, it was simply called the Temple, Uhry says, and the rabbi, who called himself Doctor, preached in a frock coat. On Easter Sunday the year he was 12, young Uhry sang the solo in "Lord, I Want to Be a Christian" with the Atlanta Boys Choir.

"He brings his unique background to his stories," says Martin Bell, senior producer of Toronto-based Livent, which developed "Parade." "Like Faulkner and Fitzgerald, he is from a specific time and place--the Jewish community of Atlanta in the 20th century--and has become the chronicler of that time and place. And like all great chroniclers of a time and place, he is kind of a fish out of water."

Uhry expresses similar sentiments, talking about the prejudice he experienced as a boy because of "my Jewish face." Feeling "out of the loop" as a Jew in Atlanta, he went off to Brown University where, among other things, he met Robert Waldman, his future songwriting partner, and Joanna Kellogg, his future wife--an Episcopalian. Bolstered by $50 a month from his mother, he moved to New York after graduation, got married and, with Waldman, worked as a songwriter for composer-lyricist and music publisher Frank Loesser.

In 1968, he and Waldman musicalized John Steinbeck's "East of Eden," an experience Uhry calls "a baptism of fire." At its out-of-town opening, there was an electrical fire in the first act and a death in the balcony during the second. It ran one night on Broadway, recalls Uhry, who says "before I could write the thank-you notes for the telegrams, the show was gone."

Saying "you learn how to get back up again," Uhry got a part-time job teaching high school drama at New York's Calhoun School. He didn't set aside his musical passions, continuing to write amid the distraction of his growing family. "In those days," he recalls, "there were four children, their friends, hamsters, gerbils, dogs and cats in our apartment. My wife was making much more money [as a teacher] than I was, so I was often the one that was home. My office was my bed, and when I really got going I would sit there and have to put my fingers in my ears."

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