Playwright Alfred Uhry and Atlanta
“Write what you know” is a familiar adage in the literary world. Playwright Alfred Uhry took that advice to heart and became one of the most lauded writers currently working.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, to a family of German-Jewish descent, Uhry made a name for himself focusing on the people and places he knows. Uhry wrote the Atlanta Trilogy, which is composed of his plays Driving Miss Daisy, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and the musical Parade. All three works concern the lives of Jewish people in Atlanta throughout the 20th century.
Parade recounts the true story of Leo Frank, a Jewish man managing a local pencil factory wrongfully convicted of murder in 1913 and subsequently lynched. The owner of the pencil factory was Alfred Uhry’s uncle.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo follows an upper-class German-Jewish family over the 1939 holiday season as they prepare for Ballyhoo, the cotillion sponsored by their country club. Uhry used his mother, aunt and daughter as inspiration for Ballyhoo’s characters. But Uhry is best known for his play Driving Miss Daisy.
Premiering off-Broadway in 1987, the original production of Driving Miss Daisy ran for almost three years. For this remarkable portrait of the relationship between an elderly Jewish woman and her African-American chauffeur, Uhry won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. His 1989 film adaptation was nominated for nine Oscars and won four, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Uhry received Tony Awards for writing Parade and Ballyhoo, making him one of the very few writers to receive an Oscar, a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize.
In a 2013 interview, Uhry said of the characters in Driving Miss Daisy: “They’re so vivid because I grew up with them in Atlanta. Lena Fox, my grandmother, was 72 when she smashed her car and the family hired her a chauffeur. His name was Will Coleman, and he drove her around for 25 years. His grandson and I still meet now and then to talk.”
Though the play’s heart is the relationship between Daisy and Hoke, the location and time period add crucial context to the story. As with each play in this trilogy, the real-life, historical events serve as the backdrop that allows character development to take place.
However, unlike Parade and The Last Night of Ballyhoo, which both focus on specific events in Atlanta during short periods of history, Driving Miss Daisy spans 1948 to 1973, when the city served as a major organizational center for the Civil Rights Movement.
These 25 years were characterized by tremendous upheaval and change throughout the nation. Atlanta had been dubbed by local political and business leaders as “the city too busy to hate,” and officials often hid behind this slogan while injustice and hatred ran rampant throughout the city. Three different Georgia governors fought from 1948 to 1963 to keep the state’s schools segregated, and it was not uncommon for homes of African Americans to be bombed in retaliation for moving into previously all-white neighborhoods. African Americans had to deal with these and other systemic, legal prejudices daily because of Jim Crow segregation laws.
Though African Americans were most often the recipients of this hatred and violence, the Jewish community was not immune. As many Jews were vocal advocates of the Civil Rights Movement, they and their congregations were viewed as a threat to the supporters of segregation. On October 12, 1958, the Jewish Reform Temple on Peachtree Street in Atlanta was bombed. Its Rabbi, Jacob Rothschild, was outspoken about his opposition to segregation. Fifteen minutes after the attack, United Press International received a call from a man acting on behalf of the “Confederate Underground,” threatening, “We bombed a temple in Atlanta. This is the last empty building we will bomb. Negroes and Jews are hereby declared aliens.” Desegregation of Atlanta’s public sphere came in stages, with the majority of change finally occurring between 1961 and 1973, as schools, movies and transportation were fully integrated. In 1973, Maynard Jackson was the first African American elected mayor in Atlanta.
Amidst this backdrop of monumental societal change and unrest, Hoke and Daisy’s story is much more intimate, and just as remarkable. As Uhry turns the mirror on these two characters, he also turns the mirror on us, the audience. These two individuals from very different worlds must work together to better understand each other and, in turn, themselves. Uhry’s work often takes a light touch to some heavy subjects. Through Daisy, Uhry explores these subjects with both heart and humor so that, ultimately, we are left with hope for what the future may hold.
Patrick Pearson is Director of Artistic Programming at Ford’s Theatre.