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Why the Crowds Didn't Love a "Parade"
Yesterday, Pat and I saw the astonishingly moving James Earl Jones in "Driving Miss Daisy." Who doesn't love a play that exposes stereotypes, letting the audience laugh along while seducing it into seeing how wrong they are? Who doesn't love a late-in-life, unlikely, beautiful friendship? According to the article linked to from Alfred Uhry's name below, Miss Daisy and the driver were inspired by Uhry's grandmother and her driver.
While raking leaves this morning, I told Pat that I thought Alfred Uhry's masterpiece so far was "Parade," which closed quickly, even though it won six Drama Desk Awards and two Tony Awards.
It demanded so much more from its audience than "Driving Miss Daisy." Based on the true story of the lynching of Leo Frank, it demo'ed a hierarchy of prejudices, at least regarding this particular case: In 1914 -- less than 50 years after the end of the Civil War -- apparently, it was worse to be a Northern Jew than a Southern, Black ex-convict.
Among the reasons to love Uhry is his fairness in parallel with his artistry: In "Driving Miss Daisy," Uhry doesn't let Daisy get away with kvetching about her childhood poverty to her driver and friend Hoke, who is Black. More than once, he reminds her, "But you doin' all right now," [compared with his family, all of whom grew up poor and could not rise in society due to their skin-color]. Likewise, in "Parade," Uhry has a number of the Black cast-members wonder aloud if there would have been so much visibility for the Leo Frank case if it had "just" been another Black man lynched, rather than a White man.
Turns out that Alfred Uhry's great-uncle owned the pencil factory that Leo Frank ran. And Uhry's grandmother was friends with the Frank family.
In both plays, Uhry, who is Jewish and who grew up in the South, does something else interesting: He has Northern and Southern Jews, expressing their alienation from one another; in "Driving Miss Daisy," in the '60s, Daisy's son's competition is a printing company run by "...a New York Jew." The son is concerned that clients could view his competitor as smarter than he, since "New York Jews" are smarter than Southern Jews, he says.
In "Parade," Uhry has Leo Frank, a New York Jew, expressing his culture shock at being in Atlanta, "How Can I Call This Home?" He sings that he's realized there's more to being Southern than simply living in the South. All of this just reminds me that there is no monolithic American, or Jewish-American culture...and I recall while living in India in 2007, being told that Northern Indians are different from Southern Indians. There are endless nuances and stark contrasts within cultures.
Culture, Friendship and Congregations Prevail
This weekend, I'm also reminded of the imminent opening of the new National Museum of American Jewish History, which I hope includes references to Uhry's plays. And I'm reminded of my Southern, Jewish friend, Robert Kingoff (z"l).
Robert and his family hailed from Wilmington, North Carolina and as I've written here before, the first and last time I had fried chicken for Shabbat dinner was at Robert's parents' house; chicken is a traditional entree in Jewish homes on Friday night, but frying it seemed to be a Southern touch. I miss Robert, who taught me about Southern, Gay, Jewish culture; he was taken by AIDS at 28, back when so many dear men were. I lost Robert, yet he remains with me.
More than two decades ago, on Robert's 25th birthday, he took us to see a favorite pop star, Grace Jones. I can't recall if she sang "La Vie En Rose", but life was rosy whenever Robert was around. He made me laugh and feel so much lighter during my early-20s, when I was sure of so little.
We weren't Miss Daisy and Hoke, but still, we were also perfect if unlikely friends brought together by necessary circumstances, i.e., both of us needed a way to celebrate Shabbat, where we felt most at home, which was at Or Chadash, Chicago's LGBT synagogue (which is also where I later met my beloved, Pat). Robert was in Chicago for law school and I was there because I wasn't yet ready to be myself in all my humanity back in metro-New York, where I had grown up.
We became family for each other, Robert and I -- a Southern, Gay Jew, and a Northern, Jewish lesbian -- super-tight and unexpected.
Unlike Miss Daisy's temple, our synagogue was not bombed, though Robert didn't live to hear the news several weeks ago of Or Chadash as a target of an explosive package.
Earlier this weekend, I tweeted, "The unlikely friendship of Miss Daisy & the driver reminds me to be grateful for the likely & surprising friendships I've made so far."
My unlikely Canadian friend and likely colleague Bernie asked in response, "Are you the driver or the passenger?"
"Both," I'd answer, as were they, and as are all friends and family.