With a German-Jewish family and their “Jewish Christmas tree,” Alfred Uhry’s “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” confronts a Jewish family’s internalized anti-Semitism on the eve of WWII.
The Freitags are preparing for Ballyhoo — the peak social event of the year in 1939 Atlanta. However, what waits for them that night are not just chandeliers, red curtains and fine wine, but introspection and coming to terms with what makes them them.
The University of Houston will perform Uhry’s Tony award-winning play from February 16 to 25 at the Quintero Theatre. Showtimes differ depending on the day; however, the characters, romance, comedy and struggles remain a constant.
“The play deals with self-identity, family dynamics, religious identity and prejudice within your own religion,” says UH School of Theatre & Dance student Catie Lovett (B.F.A. Stage Management ’20). “The performance made me self-reflect quite a lot.”
Self-reflection is central to the story of “The Last Night of Ballyhoo.” In an interview with Steven Cohen for Total Theater, Uhry opens up about his complicated relationship with Judaism. The playwright discusses the ways he tried to distance himself from his identity as he was growing up in Atlanta — much like the characters in “Ballyhoo” — and his later attempts to reconnect with his heritage. At its heart, he says, the play is about “facing where you come from and learning to accept it.”
Adolph Freitag, played by Andrés Roa (M.F.A Acting ’19), is a businessman who is detached from his Jewish heritage. But Adolph Freitag’s disconnect is challenged by the introduction of Joe Farkas, an Eastern European Jewish bachelor, who acts as the push the family needs to reconnect with their roots, by facing and overcoming their biases.
Roa draws an interesting comparison between Adolph and the character of Herr Schultz from “Cabaret.”
“I found that there’s a strange connection between Schultz and Adolph,” says Roa, who played Herr Schultz as an undergrad. “Herr Schultz wears his religion proudly, despite the risks, whereas Adolph has a more passive relationship to his religion. Adolph has grown to be almost uninterested in what it means to be Jewish. But as the play develops, there are moments when Adolph can no longer ignore his religion.”
Religious identity is not the only concept the play explores, adds Roa. “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” also focuses on mindfulness and compassion for others, whether they are next door or miles away.
“There are many different messages in this play, but for me, the most important message is about the disconnect between the Freitag family and the ‘real world,’” Roa says. “There is so much suffering and trouble in the world. I think that there is nothing more dangerous and irresponsible than tuning it out and focusing on ourselves.”
Alyssa Marek (B.F.A. Acting ’19), who plays Adolph’s niece Lala, says she hopes the play’s universal message will leave the audience more aware of ongoing social issues. “Classcism and bigotry was and still is an issue. I hope the audience gets a wakeup call or, at least, sees a different perspective of another community,” Marek says.
While the play examines deeply personal and serious themes, Lovett points out the “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” is clever, witty and funny too. By delving into relatable family dynamics, character growth, and questions surrounding religion and love, the play is as heartwarming and entertaining as it is momentous.
“The play has a great heart to it,” says Marek. “You can’t help but root for the characters.”Lovett agrees. “They are just the most fun southern family. They bicker and they laugh and they cry. I hope everyone comes and sees them!”