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.