It's ten minutes before 11 p.m. on Sunday, June 1, 1997. On the stage of Radio City Music Hall the envelope is about to be opened to reveal the winner of the Tony Award for Best Play of the Year. One nominee is The Last Night of Ballyhoo, written by Alfred Uhry.
In her home on Paces Ferry Road in Atlanta, Georgia, the playwright's mother sits alone in front of her television. 87-year-old Alene Uhry had lots of invitations but prefers to be alone, afraid to show her emotions to others. The home she lives in now is a small version of the gracious, old-style house where she and her late husband raised Alfred and his younger sister. Just like a half-century ago, Alene keeps doilies on her sofa and framed family photos on her mantlepiece.
She's nervous -- much more so than when Alfred's first two plays, The Robber Bridegroom and Driving Miss Daisy, were up for awards in 1976 and 1989. Now his name is better known and more of a spotlight is on him. Also, while Driving Miss Daisy was about Alene's mother, The Last Night of Ballyhoo is about Alene's own household, and while Daisy portrayed a noble heroine, Ballyhoo reveals some unpleasant family realities. Ample reasons for being apprehensive.
In the fifth row at Radio City, Alfred sits next to his wife of nearly forty years, Joanna. He's a man of average height and portly build. Age 60, he's greying and balding. He has a mustache that's unostentatious, like most things about him. His wire-rim eyeglasses are unfashionably large. For the occasion, he's wearing a black tuxedo. Outwardly calm, he has told friends he expects his play to lose to Skylight, a British drama. His daughter Kate -- an artist who lives in Massachusetts -- is in the audience too. It's her 31st birthday, and Alfred and Joanna will celebrate with her after the ceremony, win or lose.
The stage is set for the evening's ultimate prize. Actor Jimmy Smits announces that the winner is The Last Night of Ballyhoo. Uhry bounds to the podium and says: "I never thought a klutz like me would ever stand on this stage. Wow. This is amazing." He coughs nervously after every phrase. "My wife kept telling me to stop being such a chicken and sit down and write another play, and I did. Thank you honey, you were right. And I do have to thank my mother because she always made me feel like I was a winner. And she supplied me with all those relatives I write about."
Uhry has just become the first playwright ever to win the triple crown: a Pulitzer Prize, an Oscar and a Tony. He has won these awards by writing about his family's own history in Atlanta where -- according to Uhry -- Jews thought of themselves as unwelcome aliens. But his family's American roots were in Philadelphia, a fact heretofore unpublicized.
Alfred's maternal grandmother -- Alene's mother -- was Miss Daisy, actually named Lena. Lena's father, Istor Guthman, emigrated from Hamm, Germany, to Philadelphia in the 1850s and some of Alfred's relatives still live in the area. In Philadelphia in August 1860, Guthman married Helena Haas, who also had recently come here from Germany. He operated a dry goods business in North Philadelphia, worshipped at Rodeph Sholom and was a member of B'nai Brith. Istor and Helena raised three children here before they relocated to Atlanta where their youngest daughter -- Miss Daisy\Lena -- was born in 1877.
In Atlanta, Uhry's family was involved in the most-publicized incident of anti-Semitic violence in American history. Alfred's Uncle Sig was owner of a pencil factory which employed Leo Frank, a young Jew from New York. When a local girl was found murdered in the warehouse in 1913, Frank was falsely accused and convicted of raping and killing her. He was suspect because he was an outsider and particularly because he was a Jew. An anti-Semitic mob dragged him from his cell and lynched him.
Alfred tells me how tenuous Jewish life was in Atlanta. His parents and other relatives were afraid to go out at night for years after the Frank lynching. They made few trips away from home. They became as assimilated as possible, as if to avoid detection. Whereas her parents never brought pork into the home and avoided mixing meat and dairy on the table, Alene, with the sanction of her rabbi, abandoned all kashruth and started eating the forbidden meats.
There were no other familiar Jewish customs: no lox or bagels at the deli, no hora at your wedding and no yarmulkas worn during religious services. Uhry tells me he never saw a Bar Mitzvah; there were none at his congregation. And the rabbi was a leader in the American Council for Judaism, which actively opposed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. "Yes, we were against Zionism," admits Uhry.
His house of worship was the singularly-named The Temple, the institution of choice for the German Jews who settled in Atlanta. Later came other Jews with Eastern European roots who founded Conservative and Orthodox synagogues in Atlanta, but they were shunned by the German Reform Jews.
Alfred speaks of his family's insularity. He tells me "Germans are clannish, Southerners are clannish and Jews are clannish. As Southern German Jews we had a triple whammy. We felt a need to have other people below us, and so we lorded it over Eastern European Jews. Some German Jews called these other Jews `kikes.'"
Uhry's Passover experience was limited to one model seder at Sabbath School. Christmas was observed with a tree and big family dinners. As one of Uhry's characters says in Ballyhoo, there was one distinction between Jews and gentiles in Atlanta and it was this: Jews don't put stars on the tops of their Christmas trees. And as another of Uhry's characters observes: "You wish you could rub your elbow and turn into an Episcopalian."
"That was us," says the author. "My parents told us to keep a low profile. Don't speak loudly, and don't be pushy. We tried to appear as non-Jewish as possible, but our noses gave us away. My Jewish face was the cross I had to bear, so to speak."
The one part of Jewish tradition that seeped through his parents' filter was charity: "We always were urged to help less fortunate Jews with monies for orphanages and for refugees." His parents also taught an appreciation for culture and took him to see plays in New York. When he went away to college, to Brown, Uhry found an Episcopalian girl and married her. Alfred and Joanna have four grown daughters whom he describes as shiksas. Speaking of crosses to bear, Alfred recently discovered a new one when he attended his granddaughter's christening. "It broke my heart," he tells me, "and my wife said `What did you expect? This is what you get.'
"Joanna always encouraged me to remember my Jewish roots. She would have raised our children Jewish if I felt strongly about it at that time. But I wasn't proud of my Jewishness. I didn't give them a spiritual identity because I had none to give. Joanna felt the kids should have some religious education, so we sent them to a Unitarian church. "Now I'm trying to work out my confusion." Recently Uhry began to make Seders in his home. He credits Joanna: "She pushes me. She always says, `Realize that you're Jewish and do something about it.'"
Growing up with ample reason to be afraid in Atlanta, Jews felt like second-class citizens. They tried to establish their own structure of superiority, building their own exclusive country club and shunning other Jews whom they deemed inferior. One of the most famous of all Jewish institutions in the South was Atlanta's Ballyhoo week, which culminated in a formal dance at the club on its final night. It was the place for socially-eligible Jews to "come out" and meet one another.
Uhry's play is about the competition between two cousins to get dates for the 1939 Ballyhoo, taking place coincidentally with the premiere of Gone With the Wind and the start of the war in Europe. Into the household comes a new employee of the family business -- a handsome young New York Jew from an Eastern European background -- who is astounded by the cultural differences. The conscience of the play, he asks: "Are you people really Jewish?" He grows romantically involved with one of the girls and becomes the target of Jewish anti-Semitism.
In an intimate theater (the Helen Hayes, on Broadway) with no electronic amplification, you feel as if you're eavesdropping in the family living room. The set by John Lee Beatty is modeled on the Moorish style of Alfred's Uncle Lawrence's Atlanta home.
In Uhry's words, "the play is about falling in love, ripping a family apart and mending it back together again. It's a play about facing where you come from and learning to accept it."
Alfred remembers being taught not to be "a loudmouth Jew." Epithets like that would have been an anti-Semitic insult coming from a goy, but that's how Uhry's parents spoke. He grew up circumspect and quiet -- un-athletic and calling himself clumsy. He was a bookworm. The earliest example of his writing is in a ledger kept by his cousin Jane from Savannah. She was staying at Alfred's home in August 1945, and together they composed poems about the end of World War II. Jane was eleven, Alfred eight.
When Uhry went North to college, he met Jews who were different. After graduating Brown, Uhry worked for songwriter and publisher Frank Loesser, the street-wise Jewish New Yorker who wrote Guys and Dolls. Uhry collaborated in the writing of singing commercials for Barricini and Ronzoni and the theme song for TV's Hootenanny. Loesser was a great mentor, according to Uhry, hammering home the truth that every syllable in a song lyric is crucial.
Loesser got Uhry a job writing a musical adaptation of Steinbeck's novel, East of Eden. One of Uhry's collaborators on it was Terrence McNally, who was nanny and tutor for Steinbeck's sons and who initiated the project. Called Here's Where I Belong, it opened at the Shubert in Philadelphia in 1968 and had one performance in New York.
Uhry's education in matters theatrical and Jewish continued under Michael Price, founder of the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, who loves to give what he calls Talmudic lessons to his colleagues about social responsibility and about the history of the American musical theater. At Goodspeed, Uhry wrote adaptations of old classics like Little Johnny Jones. Was it a coincidence that this show was about Irish-American immigrants who were considered to be outside American and British society?
Then, feeling the financial responsibility for raising his daughters, Uhry took a full-time job as English teacher and theater coach at the Calhoun School in Manhattan. He was there for twenty years, leaving only after Driving Miss Daisy became a hit play and movie.
Alfred has been away from the South for 42 years. He lived in Forest Hills then moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He's lived in an 11th-floor apartment on West End Avenue for most of that time -- a simple place that looks nothing like the old-fashioned home seen in Ballyhoo. He insists on privacy. Most members of his family never have been there, and the people who handle his publicity say that they've never been invited. For his family reunion directories, being distributed only to family members, he declined to give his phone number.
Clearly, Uhry has ambivilance about his kin. In our conversation he expresses regrets. He's been away from his roots for a long time, and at reunions he has seemed awkward. His way of reconnecting has been through his writing.
Next year Uhry will find an outlet for his most bitter family memories. Director Hal Prince approached him to write a musical about Sammy Davis. Instead, Uhry suggested the Leo Frank case as a subject, and Prince immediately agreed. The title is Parade, and rehearsals are scheduled for April 1998. Between now and then Uhry is busy with three assignments: adaptations and screenplays commissioned by Morgan Freeman, Sally Field and Miramax.
But Parade is what's most important to him. Uhry wants to let people know how difficult it was to be a Jew in America just a short time ago. Alfred Uhry feels it's his mission to educate. He has a need to memorialize the Jewish heritage that he was denied because of his family's fears.