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On the Brink of WWII, ‘The Last Night of Ballyhoo’ Confronts Prejudice at Home

Alfred Uhry’s Tony Award-winning play opens at UH on February 16.

Close your eyes for a second. Imagine being a teenager, preparing to go to a homecoming dance. Imagine the nervousness of finding a date, the stress of picking out an outfit, coordinating the colors with your date and fumbling to buy a corsage or boutonniere. All of this, and you haven’t even gotten to the part about actually dancing yet! Now, throw all of that into a melting pot, and add a little dash of the pressures of class, religion and culture and you’ve got yourself a reservation to an evening at Ballyhoo.

The Last Night of Ballyhoo” is playwright Alfred Uhry’s follow-up to the critically acclaimed 1996 play “Driving Miss Daisy.” The latter title became an instant hit, earning Uhry a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The subsequent film adaption of “Driving Miss Daisy received an Academy Award for “Best Picture” while Uhry won an Academy Award for “Best Adapted Screenplay.” Although Uhry now has the unique distinction of being the only playwright to earn an Academy Award, a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize, his success as a writer was not immediate. 

On December 3, 1936, Uhry was born into an affluent German-Jewish family in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1958, he graduated Brown University with a degree in English and drama. After migrating to New York City and failing to write a noteworthy play — despite attempting to do so numerous times — he collaborated with composer Robert Waldman to adapt Eudora Welty's short novel “The Robber Bridegroom” into a musical. His work on the musical earned Uhry his first Tony nomination (for “Best Musical”) and marked his first notable credit as playwright. He’d eventually go on to author musicals, plays, and screenplays, including “Mystic Pizza(noteworthy for Julia Roberts’ breakout film role).

“The Last Night of Ballyhoo” was originally commissioned by the Olympic Cultural Committee for the 1996 Olympics, which was set to take place in Atlanta, Georgia. In a 1997 interview with Paul Rudd (who originated the role of Joe Farkas during the Broadway run of “Ballyhoo”), Uhry recounted the experience:

“Would I write a play for the 1996 Olympics? Almost immediately I thought that I would write a play about the last time Atlanta was in the international spotlight, which was the opening of “Gone with the Wind” in 1939. The day after that I thought, ‘Oh boy, I really hit it.’ Because I had Scarlett O’Hara on the one hand and Hitler invading Poland on the other. I was tempted to talk more about the war but I thought, ‘These people don’t know what’s coming. It just looks bad in Europe.’ But, nobody knows about concentration camps or Holocaust, that was in the future. And I didn’t want to hit it that hard.” 

Instead, the 1997 play emphasizes the idea of Ballyhoo, a flamboyant, sensational promotion — and offers an escape from the worries of war. In “Ballyhoo,” Boo Levy, an overbearing matriarch, scurries to find her daughter a date to the local dance. Set in a time when the outside world was still bracing itself for World War II, this play highlights the wars families can fight in their own living rooms.

 – Nontani Weatherly, dramaturg
    Antonio Lasanta, assistant dramaturg

“The Last Night of Ballyhoo” runs from Friday, February 16 through Sunday, February 25.