Saturday, October 17, 2009

Remembering Prejudice, of a Different Sort.(Arts and Leisure Desk)(THEATER).

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GROWING UP IN ATLANTA, Alfred Uhry was voted funniest in his class. ''I was pretty hard to take,'' he says now, ''putting on skirts and dressing up in gorilla suits. I embarrassed my sister Ann, who was a more successful teen-ager than I was, more normal. I was this weird little boy writing letters to the producers of 'Barefoot in Athens' to get the program. And I would come home and say I got prizes that didn't exist. When I won the Pulitzer, my mother called my sister and said, 'Alfred says he won the Pulitzer Prize.' And Ann said, 'Mother, he's not going to say he did. He really must have.''

He really did, in 1988, for ''Driving Miss Daisy,'' his first nonmusical play, based on his grandmother, a distinctly less humorous soul. When her grandson wrote her letters, she sent them back corrected.

On Thursday, Mr. Uhry's second play, ''The Last Night of Ballyhoo,'' will open on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theater, set in Atlanta once again. A romantic comedy, it takes place in 1939 during the world premiere of ''Gone With the Wind.'' Two female cousins make their plans to attend Ballyhoo, the German-Jewish community's social event of the season; those plans threaten to pull the family apart but end up bringing it together. The play was commissioned by the Cultural Olympiad and the Alliance Theater Company in Atlanta and had its own premiere there last summer, directed by Ron Lagomarsino and starring Dana Ivey, both alumnae of the original ''Driving Miss Daisy.''

''The division of Jews was the way I grew up,'' says Mr. Uhry, of German-Jewish origin himself, standing in his kitchen on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, waiting for the coffee to finish. The division he refers to was between the highly assimilated German Jews in Atlanta, who preferred their own company to that of Eastern European Jews, who immigrated to America decades later and who were less assimilated.

''Everyone thinks Jews are all the same,'' Mr. Uhry says, ''but we didn't think so in the South. People were uncomfortable with being Jewish there. The way I was brought up, the best thing to be was Episcopalian. In our temple the music was Christmas hymns. I was brought up with Christmas trees, Easter egg hunts -- and my Jewish face.''

Mr. Uhry, 60, continues: ''I was interested in writing about a prejudice that for all practical purposes is gone. And I had never seen it written about.'' The prejudice was so strong, he says, that some German Jews would even call Eastern European Jews ''kikes.'' ''When I was growing up the word 'kike' was not bandied around in my household, but they sure said it.''

He pours the coffee, offering some to his wife, Joanna Kellogg Uhry, an assistant professor of education at Fordham University, who is tapping at a computer in an adjoining room. ''I did the great thing and married an Episcopalian,'' he says, grinning. The couple have four grown daughters who were raised Unitarian. ''We finally have a seder now,'' Mr. Uhry says. ''I went to Israel in 1992, which really woke up in me that it was nothing to be ashamed of. It's embarrassing to admit you're ashamed of being Jewish all your life.'' He looks uncomfortable. ''At the end it was not a prejudice but an ignorance, a hole where the Judaism should be.''

He leads the way into the living room, filled with plants, paintings, family pictures and books, settling into the corner of the couch. Mr. Uhry is an earnest man who tries to answer questions completely and honestly. His expression tends toward the yearning. He'd like to be right. He'd like to be liked. He's the kind of man anyone would want as their uncle or their next-door neighbor or even their pharmacist. You can tell him things.

And during the run of ''Ballyhoo'' in Atlanta, people did. ''One man came up and, talking about German Jews, said: 'We were superior. We were better educated, knew our way around better.'' Mr. Uhry shakes his head. ''German Jews couldn't make it into any Christian clubs,'' he says. ''But everyone thinks they're better than somebody.''

MR. UHRY SPENT YEARS figuring that everyone in the theater was better than he. After graduating from Brown University in 1958, where he says he became ''fixated'' on musical theater, he came to New York with his writing partner, Bob Waldman, and worked for the composer Frank Loesser, who was also a music publisher.

''We wrote jingles and stuff and a couple of theme songs for TV,'' Mr. Uhry recalls. ''I had a semi-aptitude for writing lyrics but I really didn't like it that much.'' He found that he preferred updating scripts of old musicals, which he did for the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. ''I loved that job,'' he says. ''I was making up these old shows that were virtually unplayable.'' Unfortunately, in the case of ''Little Johnny Jones,'' starring Donny Osmond, the critics also found his version virtually unplayable.

He kept on, without much success, while teaching English and drama at the Calhoun School, a private school in Manhattan. The good news was that his book for the Broadway musical ''The Robber Bridgroom'' earned him a Tony Award nomination in 1976. The bad news was that it was the same year as ''A Chorus Line.'' He lost.

Why did he spend so much time and effort on musicals, anyway? He smiles. ''I was brought to New York often when I was growing up,'' he says. ''My father was in the furniture business so he needed to come here and my mother liked the theater. It seemed like heaven to me. Bob Waldman and I met each other the year 'My Fair Lady' opened. The musical as a form was riding high then. But I didn't set my sights high enough. I was shy about my own feelings. Maybe it was partly my Southern upbringing. I never said what I meant, never wanted the spotlight on myself. I wanted to be in the arts, but be invisible in the arts.''

A goal he was achieving all too well. Did he ever think of chucking it all? Maybe going back to law school?

''I think I felt like I didn't want to be bitter,'' he says. ''I thought if it didn't happen for me I'd be a teacher. Now that I think about it, I frankly didn't know what I was missing. I thought, I've got my children, my wife, my health. I was nominated for a Tony. I thought it was enough. I just wanted one last chance to write something.''

Around that time, he says, his friend, Jane Harmon, one of the producers of ''Ballyhoo,'' wanted to bring a play to New York that had a white and a black character. ''I read it and said, 'I could write a better play than that.' I didn't think I knew how to write a play, actually. All the scenes were three pages long. I was waiting for the song to come. But it always sort of had this light around it. It certainly changed my life.''

''Driving Miss Daisy'' ran for more than three years Off Broadway, toured nationally and played in 23 countries. In 1990, the film version starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman won the Oscar for best picture and Mr. Uhry won the Oscar for best adaptation of a screenplay, beating out ''Born on the Fourth of July'' and ''Field of Dreams.''

It's almost like getting hit by lightning. He nods. ''Wasn't it in 'Broadcast News,' when one of the characters says, 'What happens when your fantasies don't equal reality?' '' Though the film of ''Driving Miss Daisy'' grossed $143 million worldwide, Mr. Uhry's lifestyle has barely changed. ''We've lived in the same apartment since 1963,'' he says. ''We bought our house in Litchfield County, Conn., in the late 60's, but now it has a pool.''

He strokes Cougar, a 15-year-old cat, who has cuddled next to him on the couch. She was rescued as a kitten by his youngest daughter who discovered some boys in her class had put him on a stereo turntable and broken his tail. He purrs contentedly as Mr. Uhry pets him.

''I'm glad it all didn't happen earlier,'' he says. ''I think in a way people pretty much get what they want. If you're a kvetch all the time, that's what you like the most. Inside yourself you live the way you want to. And I guess I wanted to do all that stuff more than I wanted to be a writer. If I hadn't written 'Driving Miss Daisy' and been a teacher I would not have been less happy. But I would have been less fulfilled.''

Still, talk about pressure. His first and only nonmusical play winning a Pulitzer doesn't leave much room for improvement. He nods. ''I was always thinking maybe I just lucked out. But after 'Ballyhoo,' I feel like I did it. I wanted to know myself that I didn't write just one play. I knew it seemed pretty chicken not to write another one. 'Driving Miss Daisy' is not going to happen again.''

The reaction to his accomplishments has been predictably mixed. ''I found that for a while it was really hard to be with most people. They resented this. They didn't say it but it wasn't comfortable. When I met new people they saw me as this thing instead of just me. I like people who liked me before.''

Part of his success comes from his steady work over the last 10 years as a screenwriter. Besides ''Driving Miss Daisy,'' he has written ''Mystic Pizza'' and ''Rich in Love'' -- even a version of ''The Bridges of Madison County.'' ''The scary part is that after you read the book for the third time it's not so bad,'' he says, laughing.

Among the theater people pleased about his success is Andre Bishop of Lincoln Center Theater, who had been the artistic director of Playwrights Horizons when he decided to produce ''Driving Miss Daisy.''

Mr. Bishop recalls that the director Gerald Gutierrez brought him the play. ''He and Alfred knew each other from Goodspeed,'' Mr. Bishop says, ''and Alfred was a subscriber at Playwrights. He was too embarrassed to bring it to me himself. I read it all in one gulp on my sofa and I thought, 'This thing is just going to work.' It's the only time I've ever known it.''

In addition to ''The Last Night of Ballyhoo,'' Mr. Uhry is once again trying a musical. This one is with Harold Prince, called ''Parade,'' based on the Leo Frank case of a New York Jew living in Atlanta, who was wrongly convicted of murder and lynched in 1915.

ATLANTA AGAIN. HE NODS, though he points out that his next movie, for Morgan Freeman, is set in Memphis. ''But it's always Southern, and why not?'' he says easily. ''I'm Southern.''

Besides being set in the South, both ''Driving Miss Daisy,'' which explored the 25-year relationship between a Jewish woman and her black chauffeur, and ''The Last Night of Ballyhoo'' are shaped by the theme of divisiveness.

Mr. Freeman, currently working on a movie in Los Angeles, says that in ''Driving Miss Daisy,'' ''the divisiveness is not in the play but in the fabric of the system Alfred is writing about. You can see all the notes but they don't seem to be on the page to me. I was just astounded at how you can pass the written word and hear the music. Alfred is so good with dialogue, and when you're good you don't say everything with words.''

Mr. Uhry's father died when he was 18 but his mother is still alive. ''She thought I could walk on water,'' he says fondly. ''All that lunacy I did, my mother encouraged me. I was raised around a lot of women. I would play with trucks on the floor and listen to the women talk. And I was always big on social currents, who was hot and who was not. I skipped class all the time. In 11th grade we were reading 'Hedda Gabler' and I said, 'This woman's pregnant.' And the teacher said 'We're not going to talk about that, it has nothing to do with it.' '' He shakes his head, amused. 'In the South, what you say isn't as important as the way you say it. It's all layers. Words tend to be a filigree a lot of times.''

Mr. Uhry still listens to women; he now has four granddaughters and one grandson, whom he holds in much higher esteem than he did himself as a child. His expression goes from pride to exasperation as the topics switch.

Why? What did he do that was so bad?

''I was just strange,'' he insists. ''Completely unathletic. A little nut.''

So, look at him now, a grown-up man. What ever happened to that side of him, all these years later?

He thinks a moment, stroking the cat. ''I guess,'' he says, smiling slightly, ''that's the side of me that writes plays.''


Photos: Mr. Uhry on the set of his new play, ''The Last Night of Ballyhoo''-- ''Everyone thinks Jews are all the same, but we didn't think so in the South.'' (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)(pg. 5); Celia Weston, left, and Dana Ivey in ''The Last Night of Ballyhoo,'' opening Thursday on Broadway. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times); Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman in the film ''Driving Miss Daisy.'' (Warner Brothers)(pg. 27)

Source Citation:Witchel, Alex. "Remembering Prejudice, of a Different Sort." The New York Times (Feb 23, 1997): NA. Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 17 Oct. 2009

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