September 4, 2003
The Other Side of the South
When director Warner Shook saw Alfred Uhry's "The Last Night of Ballyhoo" in 1997, he immediately recognized the story.
Shook ("The Kentucky Cycle") was familiar with genteel Southern anti-Semitism and its repercussions -- but from the non-Jewish side. "I grew up a privileged WASP," he said.
His great-grandfather, Braxton Bragg Comer, was governor of Alabama and a founder of the textile mill Uhry refers to in his play, "Driving Miss Daisy." Like Daisy, Shook's parents employed a black chauffeur who was close to the family.
Nevertheless, his childhood in Birmingham, Ala., was white and segregated. His few Jewish friends seemed to live in another world: "Our home was very chintz and Chippendale, and I recall going over to a Jewish friend's house that had velvet and looked different," Shook, 54, said. "Even the smells were different -- not a clove of garlic passed through the Shook house -- and it just seemed very exotic to a little WASP boy."
Yet, young Shook understood that his friend couldn't join his restricted country club; nor were Jews welcome at the cotillions where his sisters made their debuts.
"So the Jews of Birmingham had their own country clubs and debutante balls, a phenomenon described in 'Ballyhoo,'" he said.
What surprised him was the play's reference to Jewish bigotry: "I had known nothing about the conflict between German and Eastern European Jews," he said. Shook was so fascinated he decided to direct the piece; to learn more, he read books on Jewish Atlanta and watched documentaries such as "Delta Jews," narrated by Uhry.
He had his cast do the same while rehearsing Ballyhoo at Seattle's Intiman Theatre in 1999 and last month at South Coast Repertory.
During recent rehearsals, he found himself acting as a "translator" for his actors, none of whom are from the deep South. "Some of the characters' behavior seems foreign to them," he said. "So I tell them stories about my family and about people I have known. I offer insights about Southern behavior that, I think, add to the patina of the play."
He spoke of his family estate on Shook Hill Road, an exclusive neighborhood similar to the Habersham Road address described in the play; he talked of learning to ride a bicycle in the resort town of Point Clear, Ala., which is mentioned in "Ballyhoo;" and of the veneer of graciousness his mother sometimes used to her advantage ("She could charm a snake," he said).
He emphasized that while the behavior is Southern, the message is universal. "The play is a testament to self-acceptance," he said.