What Drives Alfred Uhry?
By Isa Goldberg
Who would have imagined that a simple, three-person play with fairly modest staging would be the hottest ticket on Broadway? But this season “Driving Miss Daisy” starring Vanessa Redgrave, James Earl Jones and four-time Tony-winner Boyd Gaines is one of the hardest tickets to get. On October 6th, the day before previews had even begun, Variety reported advance sales of $4.5 million.
The story, about the bond that develops between an elderly Southern Jewish lady and her black chauffeur has become a classic, mostly because of the Oscar-winning movie that starred Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. Of course, the film was based on the original play also written by Alfred Uhry with whom I shared a cup of coffee one morning at a popular theater district diner.
“I was not trying to write anything with a message. I don’t write that way. I was really writing a family memoir about my childhood,” Uhry remarked. He is relaxed while loquacious in exploring with me the titular character. “Miss Daisy” (Vanessa Redgrave) was based to a large extent on his own grandmother, whom he describes as “lovable because she’s pretty irascible. She has absolutely no sense of humor about herself and it makes her funny.”
The more earnest character from Uhry’s perspective is the chauffeur (James Earl Jones). “Hoke” he explains, “is a more socially evolved man than she is. Of course, he hasn’t had any education. He’s functionally illiterate when he comes to work for her. And he’s an old man, too. But they learn from each other that labels aren’t it. It’s what’s inside yourself that’s it. And that people need to realize that about each other.”
“I find what’s so interesting” Uhry adds “is that in the 25 years since I wrote the play, we’ve certainly made great racial strides in this country – enormous racial strides – but that labeling is still here. It is for blacks. It is for Jews. It now is all of a sudden for Muslims. And so all that fear and hate and ignorance is there.”
About his own upbringing, the playwright shares with me the internalized anti-Semitism of his Southern German Jewish ancestry. As he observed it, “being Jewish was some sort of defect that you had to overcome like being lame or being blind. So I grew up with a chip on my shoulder wishing that I could have, as I said in another one of my plays, “kissed my elbow and turned into an Episcopalian.”
That play, “The Last Night at Ballyhoo” the second in Uhry’s unofficial Atlanta trilogy, ends with a return to traditional Jewish ritual, as if to suggest that as the way forward for American Jewry. So I ask Uhry if this is his belief. “Yes, I do believe it” he affirms, continuing “it’s what I wish for all my grandchildren. It doesn’t hurt to have that little extra to hang onto when bad stuff happens. It’s good to have a higher power which I also believe exists. I believe all the tenants of Judaism a lot. I was just raised outside of the ritual.”
On another note, I share with Uhry a different perspective, one based on a remark I heard James Earl Jones make at a press conference. But before I have a chance to repeat Jones’ comment, Uhry interrupts me: “He’s a very modest man. He doesn’t say much, but wow is he articulate!” Clearly, the actor identified something about contemporary conflict when he commented, that “what we see in the play is the kind of patience that’s needed from people who are essentially powerless. Not just Hoke, but Miss Daisy….really powerless to curb the things that went wrong in Atlanta and in the South in general – in America in general. We didn’t have much power. Not that we would have used it well if we had. But you will have a chance to see people functioning from powerlessness.”
On that note, the play evokes the bombing of Atlanta’s reformed Temple – and the state of disbelief into which it throws Miss Daisy who imagines that it must have been intended for the orthodox or conservative synagogues instead. But Hoke sets her straight, “A Jew is a Jew to them folks.” He tells her, “Jes like light or dark, we all the same nigger.”
Alfred Uhry, who was a student at Brown University when the bombing occurred recalls seeing the Temple he knew, pictured at the newsstand. Obviously, it affected him profoundly. As he recounts it, “When this came about the Civil Rights movement was in its infancy. The Rabbi there and Martin Luther King Jr. were very close. Of course, Jews were not subject to what blacks were subject to in the South, but they were also victims of prejudice. So, the Rabbi’s holding hands with Ralph Abernathy and King singing ‘We Shall Overcome-’ well, it was a very stirring period.”
That “Driving Miss Daisy” brings us a sense of that period through the microcosm of this simple relationship speaks to its enduring quality. It made Alfred Uhry the only person ever to receive the Tony, Oscar and Pulitzer awards for dramatic writing. And while it was his first play, Uhry had struggled for years before that as a lyricist (with far more success than he’s willing to concede over morning coffee). “Writing lyrics was too hard,” he complained. I met Stephen Sondheim and I thought I’m never going to be as good as that. But, having Shakespeare and Arthur Miller in the world never stopped me from writing a play. It’s just what I wanted to do.”