Fear and Self-Loathing in Atlanta

When Alfred Uhry was growing up in a German Jewish family in Atlanta, he didn’t know what a bagel was. The word, "klutz" was as foreign to him as Chinese.

"I never attended a bar mitzvah, much less had one," Uhry, 66, said from his Manhattan home.

Instead, he sang the lead solo in a school Christmas choir and celebrated the Yuletide around his family tree.

Although he wasn’t welcome at the Christian holiday cotillions, he attended the German Jewish ball, Ballyhoo, which in turn excluded Eastern European Jews.

The ball becomes a metaphor for Jewish self-loathing in Uhry’s 1997 play, "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," which opens South Coast Repertory’s 40th season Sept. 5. The comedy-drama revolves around two families preparing for Ballyhoo in 1939 as Hitler invades Poland and the film "Gone With the Wind" premieres in Atlanta.

Into the fray arrives Joe, a Russian American Jew from Brooklyn, who is so shocked by the family’s Southern airs (their names include Lala and Boo) he asks, "Are you people really Jewish?"

Another character in the play describes Ballyhoo as "a lot of dressed-up Jews dancing around, wishing they could … turn into Episcopalians."

For Uhry, Joe is the conscience of the play, a wake-up call for Jews who have turned Southern anti-Semitism on themselves and each other.

"It’s just like my childhood community, where we felt so negative about being Jewish," he said. "We should have tried to hold onto our heritage, but we tried to run away from it, which was like pretending you don’t have a lame leg. For years, I felt ashamed of being Jewish. I regarded myself as a Southerner first."

These days Uhry — dubbed "Atlanta’s Jewish soul poet" by one scholar — has a different reputation. His "Ballyhoo," along with his Pulitzer Prize winning play, "Driving Miss Daisy," has helped inspire an emerging body of work on Southern Jewry, including the documentaries "Shalom Y’all" and "Delta Jews."

Uhry "completely gets the nuances of Southern society and Southern Jews," said Warner Shook [see sidebar], who is directing "Ballyhoo" at South Coast Repertory.

Uhry has deep roots in the deep South. His father’s family dates to pre-Revolutionary War New Orleans; his maternal great-grandmother arrived in Atlanta as a baby around 1848.

His great-uncle owned the pencil factory that employed Leo Frank, the Jew lynched after being falsely accused of raping and killing a 13-year-old subordinate in 1913. "If anybody mentioned Frank when I was a kid, the older generation would just get up and walk out of the room," Uhry said. "They thought that since Frank’s wife was a German Jew, he’d be given special treatment. The big shock was that to all those country Southern people, German Jews were just ‘dirty Jews’ like everyone else. On top of what happened to that poor man, to have that social distinction rubbed in their faces was just too much."

The social distinction was also made clear when Uhry’s sister was asked to leave the restricted Venetian Club pool, an incident he describes in "Ballyhoo."

No wonder he played down his heritage until he arrived at Brown University and befriended a Jewish classmate, Robert Waldman, with whom he later collaborated on musicals.

"I started going to his seders and seeing the family traditions, which I liked a lot," Uhry said. "I gradually started to realize what I had been missing, and that there was a hole where the Judaism should be. I wanted to address that, somehow, as a writer."

He did so in three plays that have become his trilogy on Southern Jewry. "Driving Miss Daisy" (1988) was inspired by the relationship between his crotchety Jewish grandmother and her black chauffeur.

Ballyhoo began when the Atlanta cultural Olympiad commissioned Uhry to write a play for the 1996 Olympics.

"It occurred to me that the last time Atlanta was in the international spotlight was when ‘Gone With the Wind’ premiered there in 1939," he said of his inspiration. "I knew that Hitler was invading Poland at the same time, and I thought that would be the perfect milieu to talk about Southern anti-Semitism."

When Broadway director Harold Prince wondered why "Ballyhoo’s" characters rushed headlong to assimilate, Uhry told him about the Leo Frank case.

"Harold put his glasses on top of his head, stood up and said, ‘That’s a musical,’" he recalled. The result was "Parade," for which Uhry won a Tony Award in 1999.

His new play, "Edgardo Mine," is based on the true story of an Italian Jewish boy who was baptized and forcibly removed from his parents in the late 1850s.

Although "Mine" is set a continent away from "Ballyhoo," Uhry sees a connection.

"My wife says all my plays are about Jews who want to become Christian," he said.

Uhry, who now hosts an annual seder, is no longer in that category. "Writing plays like ‘Ballyhoo’ has helped me resolve my issues," he said. "I used to say I was Southern first, American second and Jewish a far third. Now I’m an American, Southern Jew."

"Ballyhoo" plays Sept. 5-Oct. 5 at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. For tickets ($27-$55), call (714) 708-5555.

Classic ‘Nathan’ Takes Modern Turn

In Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s "Nathan the Wise," now at the Lillian Theater, a bloody war ravages the Middle East. Jerusalem is the flashpoint.

But the setting isn’t modern-day Israel; it’s the Third Crusade in 1192.

If Lessing’s 18th-century German classic feels contemporary, it is because the tension among Jews, Muslims and Christians resonates in today’s political climate, according to producer Alan Friedenthal.

The founder of the fledgling Southern California Jewish Repertory Theatre, he said he chose "Nathan" to kick off his debut season because, "we wanted to make a statement with something topical."

Lessing’s drama, adapted by Richard Sewell, revolves around a virtuous Jewish merchant, his adopted Christian daughter, a fanatical Christian patriarch and a benevolent sultan leader. In the most memorable sequence, the merchant Nathan tells a parable of three rings given to three sons, one of them real, the others clever fakes.

"That serves as a metaphor for the three religions, with no way of knowing which is the one true faith," Sewell told The Journal. "It’s a profoundly modern play because the message is that whatever one’s convictions, one’s first obligation is to one’s humanity. That transcends the transcendence of religion."

In fact, current events have caused the play — seldom performed outside Europe — to enjoy several recent American revivals, including a 2002 run at New York’s Pearl Theater and a public television version.

In the acclaimed Lillian Theater production, perhaps the first ever in Los Angeles, the present-day angle is enhanced by costumes combining historical and contemporary elements. The Sultan’s sister wears a suit by Yves Saint Laurent, for example, while the Knight Templar sports chain mail and gray leather.

"My goal was to show that nothing has really changed in 1,000 years," director Pavel Cerny said. "There’s still a lack of tolerance among the religions, and the terrorism we’re seeing today is a part of that."

If "Nathan the Wise" feels both timely and timeless, it is because Lessing was a man ahead of his time, according to Cerny. The son of a preacher, he surprised his parents with letters proclaiming that religious beliefs should not be blindly inherited from one’s family. His 1747 drama, "The Jew," angered observers by depicting a virtuous Jewish character amid less-than-noble Christian ones. "Nathan the Wise" — modeled after his friend, Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn — elicited even more public criticism.

Almost two centuries later, the piece was banned by Hitler; it was among the first plays staged in Berlin after World War II. "The production took place in a bombed-out theater with many concentration camp survivors present," Cerny said. "It must have been very powerful."

The journey of "Nathan the Wise" to Los Angeles began with Friedenthal, a Superior Court judicial officer who had long dreamed of founding his own Jewish theater. He said he was encouraged to do so by his mentor, the late great Broadway producer Arthur Cantor ("The Tenth Man"), for whom he had served as an attorney on productions such as "Beau Jest."

Friedenthal often visited Cantor in his vast apartment in Manhattan’s famed Dakota. When he mentioned he was founding the Southern California Jewish Repertory Theatre, Cantor made a "significant" contribution toward its debut production, the attorney said.

While Friedenthal’s theater joins several other Jewish companies in Los Angeles, including the West Coast Jewish Theater and Los Angeles Jewish Theater, he hopes to stand out by offering a season of fully staged, Jewish-themed productions in a 99-seat house.

He had already discovered "Nathan the Wise" in a theater anthology when Cerny mentioned it as a possibility to launch the season. The only problem was that existing translations were old-fashioned and lacked the poetry of Lessing’s blank verse.

The issue was solved when Friedenthal read about Sewell’s new adaptation in The New York Times last year; Cerny went on to cast the play with ethnically varied actors "because we wanted to mirror the friendship that develops among the diverse characters in the play."

Audience members have burst into applause at several points during the show, Cerny said.

"They recognize that the plea for brotherhood is as much about today as about the 12th century," he said.

Lillian Theater, 1076 N. Lillian Way, Hollywood. For tickets and information, call (323) 293-7257.