September 24, 2018

A Playwright Returns to His Roots

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Alfred Uhry, 61, is a Southern Jew who defines himelf as someone who grew up in a community of genteel Southern Jews who wished they were Episcopalian.

It is a wry, almost mocking description that perhaps befits the author of “Driving Miss Daisy,” which won the Tony and the Pulitzer. That play was based on the friendship between Uhry’s Jewish grandmother and her black chauffeur, two outsiders in the deep South. Uhry won the Oscar for the 1989 film version of the play, starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman and in the process became one of the more prominent Jewish playwrights on Broadway. Ironically, Uhry had been known earlier as someone who wrote the book for Broadway musicals.

Now comes “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” which won the Tony last year and opens Oct. 11 at the Canon Theatre. The piece focuses on two cousins who are preparing for the German-Jewish ball, Ballyhoo, as “Gone With the Wind” is premiering in Atlanta and Hitler is invading Poland.

The characters have names like Lala and Boo and are proud to live in the same neighborhood as members of the Junior League. They are German Jews who condescend to the newer émigrés, the Jews from Eastern Europe. A lavish Christmas tree decorates the family living room.

The Southerners are shaken, however, by the arrival of Joe, a Russian-Polish Jew from Brooklyn who is shocked by the Jewish Yuletide and by the fact that no one can pronounce a single word of Yiddish. “

“Are you people really Jewish?” he finally asks one of the Southern cousins, who admits she feels “A big hole where the Judaism is supposed to be.” The sentiment expresses a longing that Uhry feels. “I was a deprived child,” says the playwright, who has intense, soulful eyes and a slim mustache. “I was deprived of my Jewish heritage.”

Uhry, who now lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, said his forbears arrived in Georgia and Louisiana in the early 19th century. A great-uncle was a blockade runner during the Civil War, “like Rhett Butler,” Uhry says.

The Uhrys regarded themselves as “Southerners first,” but “we were uncomfortable with our Jewish faces,” the playwright says. “The attitude about being Jewish was that you were stuck with it; that it was something you had to bear.”