Awed By Success of His First Drama, Alfred Uhry Has Two New Plays in the Works
`MY favorite subject is my granddaughter,'' Pultizer-winning playwright Alfred Uhry tells an Atlanta audience. ``...My second-favorite subject is the theater. ... I don't remember a time when I didn't love the theater.'' Stage and film buffs know the proud new grandfather as the writer of both theater and movie versions of ``Driving Miss Daisy,'' which won the 1988 Pulitzer for drama and is up for nine Oscars at tonight's Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles.
The touching comedy-drama about the 25-year relationship of a cranky Atlanta Jewish widow and her faithful black chauffeur is the first play Uhry has ever written alone, though he has collaborated on a number of musical-theater productions.
His Atlanta audience includes many old friends and family members, but Uhry doesn't consider himself a regional writer, and not a trace of his Southern accent remains. Yet, he has deep roots in the South. He comes from a long line of German-Jewish merchants and was born and raised here in Atlanta, as was his mother. He grew up just a few blocks from the red brick home used as Miss Daisy's house in the movie starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. Uhry's mother, a graduate of Wellesley College, and his sister, a college professor, still live in Atlanta.
Uhry took piano lessons all through grammar school and wrote his first musical when he was still in high school. He said, ``I felt my life's ambition was to be the next Rodgers and Hammerstein, but I can't remember the name of that first musical.''
He does remember, though, the first musical he saw as a child - a traveling production of ``Carousel.'' He said, ``When I was there in the theater, I was transformed. Watching all of the people do that stuff, I had to find a way to do it, too.''
After graduating with a degree in English from Rhode Island's Brown University in 1958, he married and went to New York to become a lyricist. There he worked with his partner, composer Robert Waldman, for more than 25 years and attained moderate success. In the mid-'70s, he earned both a Tony and Drama Desk nomination for ``The Robber Bridegroom,'' a Broadway production based on the Eudora Welty novel.
STILL struggling to support his wife and children, Uhry taught English at Calhoun High School in New York until 1980. He said, ``I was a terrible teacher of grammar, but I was a good teacher of literature. I enjoyed teaching Shakespeare - especially `Macbeth.' Pausing for a moment, he adds, ``I was learning about the craft [of playwrighting] without really knowing it. Shakespeare never missed a trick.''
Uhry decided to write a play after seeing a ``really stupid play'' about a black woman and a white woman. He recalled, ``I thought I could write a play better than that.''
His leading characters are a composite of many relatives and people Uhry knew from his childhood. And except for Florine, the daughter-in-law who celebrates Christmas and socializes with Episcopalians, he used names of people he knew.
The real Miss Daisy, a maiden lady and the last of a big family, was a close friend of his grandmother's during the '40s. Uhry laughed and said, ``Contrary to what appears in the papers, my grandmother is not Miss Daisy. Neither is my mother, though my grandmother was a horrendous driver, and she did back over a ravine on Oakdale Drive and land on a neighbor's garage. And she didn't even break her glasses.''
After her accident, his family hired Will Coleman to chauffeur his grandmother. Uhry said, ``Will Coleman came into my life when I was 12. He was like my real grandfather, and he and my grandmother bickered just like my grandmother and her four older sisters.'' But, Hoke was based on several black chauffeurs and named for the occasional bartender at the German-Jewish country club.
THOUGH some of the incidents, such as the blizzard and the bombing of the Temple on Peachtree really happened in Atlanta, Uhry made up others. He said, ``All of my life I've been pretty good about making up things. You know, you take a truth and add a little of this and take out a bit of that. When I was a child, I think that was called lying,'' he adds with a laugh.
Uhry's method of writing is all his own. Reached by phone at his four-bedroom Upper West Side apartment back in New York, he explained, ``I do a lot of thinking about it [the play] and a lot of pacing around.
``I think of myself as the audience, and then I start to tell myself a story. But it's hard work, and it takes a long time - months and months. The good part comes when the characters start talking to me - then I'm like the maid - I just write down what they say.
``For instance, I wanted Hoke to go to the Martin Luther King dinner with Miss Daisy, but when the characters just seemed to stop talking, I realized that they really didn't want him to go.''
He writes at home, and says, ``It's very lonely - just me and the dog and cats.'' Though Uhry and Joanna, his wife of 30 years, have four daughters, none of them is living at home now.
Still somewhat awed by ``Daisy's'' success, he says, ``I do believe in some sort of magic or power, because from the very first day I finished [the play] it's had a light shining around it. And it's always landed on its feet.''
When asked how he works his magic, he says, ``I wish I could tell you what I did, but I don't know what I did. I do know, though, the the story of Hoke and Miss Daisy pretty much parallels race relations in Atlanta during those years. I knew I was dealing with truth.''
Eager to move on to new projects, Uhry is working on another play about his childhood in Atlanta. He's also adapting a novel by Charleston writer Josephine Humphrey as a screenplay.