Interview: Alfred Uhry

Southern discomfort from a good ol' Jewish boy


It is the morning after the opening night before and Alfred Uhry is looking pretty relaxed. The author of Driving Miss Daisy is in his slippers and sat on an over-upholstered sofa in an almost bookless room that the central London hotel where he is staying calls "The Library". He used to say that opening nights were as scary as walking on fire. "Last night was delightful", he purrs in a soft southern drawl that is the result of being born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia.

"I know that Vanessa and James Earl are in it and that it is going to make sure that the production will be there for the whole run. So I just had a good time."

And he is right. With Vanessa Redgrave as the Jewish widow Daisy and James Earl Jones as the African-American who is hired by Daisy's son (Boyd Gaines) to be her driver, tickets for the latest production of Uhry's Pulitzer-winning play will be hard to get.

Written in 1987, Driving Miss Daisy is the hit that, after a period as a not-so-successful lyric writer, turned Uhry into an award-winning dramatist. With a relatively modest output, the number of Uhry trophies must come close to outnumbering the number of Uhry plays. The Miss Daisy Pulitzer was followed by a best screenplay Oscar for the film version, starring Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy. The second of what has become known as Uhry's Atlanta Trilogy was Last Night of the Ballyhoo (1997) which won Tonys, as did the musical Parade, for which Uhry wrote the book to go with Jason Robert Brown's score.

All three works deal with being Jewish in America's south. The first and last reflect the well-documented culture of antisemitism in the region. But the middle one, Last Night of the Ballyhoo, is about a different brand of antisemitism - Jewish antisemitism.

Set in Atlanta during the war, the play deals with the culture gap between a New York Jew and a comfortable southern Jewish family, similar to the one that Uhry was born into. It is a gap as least as big as that between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews and it reveals the snobbish attitude of the south's German-descended Jews towards those whose forebears arrived from eastern Europe. It also reflects how southern Jews adopted many of the religious rituals and customs of mainstream Christian southerners.

"My grandmother would make matzah balls," says Uhry of the woman on whom he based Miss Daisy. "But she called them cracker balls."

Sitting a few feet away from us working on a laptop is the neat, bespectacled figure of Uhry's Episcopalian wife Joanna, an author and academic. She modestly declines my invitation to join us, saying she would only crowd our space. But it would have been good to talk to her because more than any other person it was Joanna who encouraged Uhry to embrace Judaism. If Uhry was at first reluctant, it was more down to embarrassment, he says, than the kind of attitudes he wrote about in The Last Night Ballyhoo.

"I certainly have never denied that I'm Jewish," says Uhry. "And I've certainly played it out through my writing. All my stuff seems one way or another to have something to do with it. I feel that I was robbed as a child. Being brought up by very secular German Jews, I was sort of taught to look down on eastern European Jews. That was a shame."

These days this 74-year old "southern boy" lives on Manhattan's Upper West Side where "everybody is either Jewish or half-Jewish". But he still feels the absence of a Jewish childhood. "I regret that Jewish ritual was not a part of my life. We have a Seder now but it's just a sort of half-assed Seder. I never had that deeply felt Jewish ritual. There was no: 'This is the yamulkah that my grandfather wore' - I didn't have anything like that."

Is it this absence of Jewish ritual that most informs his writing?

"I've certainly done things that have nothing to do with being Jewish," says Uhry, who is again working with Jason Robert Brown and, of all people, French singer Charles Aznavour on a musical about Toulouse-Lautrec.

"But I guess being Jewish is where I go when I want to get at what I really am. I realised early on when I was a playwright, and I knew David Mamet and Wendy Wasserstein, that nobody else could write Wendy's plays because the plays were Wendy. And that if you woke David Mamet up in the middle of the night, he would sound like his plays. So I realised that you have to dig into your own identity to get there. This is my identity."

The next play in the Uhry canon will keep to that identity. Called Divine Intervention, it based on the non-fiction book, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, and is set in 19th-century Bologna which was then a papal state.

"It is the true story of a Jewish infant in the 1850s," explains Uhry. "He was dying and unbeknown to his parents, his nursemaid sprinkled water on him to baptise him so that he could get into heaven. But he didn't die. The nursemaid told everybody what she'd done. Six years later the police came because it was illegal for a baptised soul to live in a Jewish house, and they came and took this six-year old child away. They took him in the middle of the night."

The play, which Driving Miss Daisy director David Esbjornson is hoping to open in London next year, is largely about what the boy's parents went through in trying to have him returned.

"It's a fascinating story," says Uhry. "It was swept under the rug for 100 years or more because it didn't make the Church look too good. But there was such international protests it was actually one of the principle causes of the collapse of the Vatican empire."

Uhry has no qualms about revealing part of the plot, especially the fate of the child Edgardo, who never went back to his parents and eventually became a priest, even putting his energies into converting Jews. "On a personal level, I think that's what attracted me to it," jokes Uhry. "At last I'd found somebody who was a worse Jew than I am."

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