Hall of Fame Honorees
The plays in Alfred Uhry’s theatrical “Atlanta trilogy” were inspired by the writer’s experience of growing up Southern and Jewish in Georgia’s capital in the 1940s and 1950s. By following his own cardinal rule for creating characters (“Try to tell the truth”) in the plays Driving Miss Daisy, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, and Parade, Uhry has reaped honors from Broadway to Hollywood, winning his profession’s highest rewards for dramatic writing. He is the only American writer to win both Tony and Academy awards and the Pulitzer Prize.
Uhry’s three Atlanta plays occur alongside historic moments in the city’s twentieth century—the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, the 1939 Gone With the Wind premiere, the 1958 Temple bombing, and the city’s 1964 dinner honoring Martin Luther King’s Nobel Peace Prize. In each play a consciousness of race defines characters’ relations with one another, and their personal conflicts develop in ways that reflect the evolving history of Atlanta.
Uhry graduated from Druid Hills High School and Brown University and began his professional career in 1960s Manhattan as a lyric writer with writer-publisher Frank Loesser. He later worked as a private school theater teacher and wrote comedy scripts for television before composing the lyrics for his first Broadway musical, an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden. Uhry’s first stage success came in 1976 with a musical version of The Robber Bridegroom by Eudora Welty, which earned Uhry his first Tony Award nomination for playwriting. He subsequently wrote the “book” (also called the libretto, or narrative) for several musicals between 1977 and 1985. According to Uhry he was on the verge of quitting the business for teaching when he found himself writing his first non-musical, a play he would call Driving Miss Daisy that opened off Broadway in 1987 and brought him remarkable popular success.
Driving Miss Daisy was loosely based on the story of his own grandmother and her longtime chauffeur. Uhry followed two characters whose relationship from 1947 to 1972 traveled the distance of a complex range of tension and understanding that was common between Southern whites and blacks who worked and lived together as the civil rights movement emerged. Driving Miss Daisy won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1988, and the play ran for three years off-Broadway. A Broadway revival of the play followed in 2010, as did touring productions in the United Kingdom and Australia. The 1989 movie version – filmed entirely in Georgia – won four Academy Awards in 1990, including Best Picture. Uhry won both the Oscar and the Writers Guild of America’s award for best adapted screenplay.
Uhry’s next play, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, was written on a commission for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. From there it moved to Broadway, where it won the 1997 Tony Award for Best Play. Set in December 1939, Ballyhoo conjured comedy from the snobbery, misunderstandings, and interracial prejudice of an assimilated German Reform Jewish family living, as Uhry’s family had, on Habersham Road in Atlanta. The play was inspired by Uhry’s recollections of a Jewish society affair, Ballyhoo, which culminated in a dance at Atlanta’s exclusive Standard Club. What emerged from Uhry’s creative imagination was what Variety magazine called “a delightful comedy freighted with an uncomfortable message” where, while Hitler’s invasion of Poland is happening offstage, Uhry’s characters are wrought up with social anxieties on the eve of the city’s Gone With the Wind premiere and a fancy debutante ball.
The last of Uhry’s Atlanta plays, Parade, has been described as a “dark musical.” Parade is based upon the case of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager from Brooklyn who was railroaded in a 1913 Atlanta murder trial inflamed by an anti-Semitic, anti-Yankee Georgia press, then lynched in a national scandal. As political demagoguery and racist hysteria roil the city around them, the play focuses upon the relationship between Frank and his wife, Lucille. Uhry envisions Frank as a cold and isolated figure, whose wife’s fight to have his death sentence commuted manages to open her husband up to the couple’s love, yet ultimately ends in tragedy when Frank is abducted from jail and hung by a Marietta lynch mob. Uhry’s book for Parade won his second Tony Award in 1999, and a revised production of the musical in 2007 drew an Olivier Award nomination for excellence in the London theater.
Uhry’s subsequent works include the 2006 plays Without Walls and Edgardo Mine, and Apples and Oranges (2012), and the musicals Lovemusik (2007) and Angel Reapers (2011). In addition, he wrote the scripts for the movies Mystic Pizza (1988)and Rich in Love (1993). In 2013 it was announced that Uhry would adapt for the stage another Georgia-based story, John Berendt’s bestselling 1994 book of murder and local color in Savannah, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Photo of Alfred Uhry by Carol Rosseg.
The following titles by Alfred Uhry are held by the Hargrett Library:
The Robber Bridegroom : based on the novella by Eudora Welty. New York : Drama Book Specialists, 1978.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo. New York : Dramatists Play Service, c1997.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo. New York : Theatre Communications Group, c1997.
The Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library of Emory University (Atlanta) holds papers of playwright Alfred Uhry, including photographs, scripts, audio-visual materials, and correspondence.