Published in KPBS On Air Magazine November 1999

Young, Italian-Irish wannabe-opera singer directs play about wartime Southern Jews. Seems unlikely, but Cynthia Stokes is up to the task.  

Actually, the 36 year-old Albuquerque native hasn’t wanted to be an opera singer for a long time.   Instead, she’s directed operas (in Houston, L.A. and San Diego) as well as stage plays (in New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Massachusetts, Minnesota and California). And anyway, “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” is about a lot more than wartime Southern Jews.

The second play by Alfred Uhry focuses on the same social stratification as his Pulitzer and Oscar-winning “Driving Miss Daisy”: upper middle-class Atlanta, his family’s home turf. “Daisy” was played out against the civil rights movement.   “Ballyhoo” is set against a backdrop of Hitler, Christmas and Scarlett O’Hara.

It’s December 1939, the eve of the premiere of “Gone With the Wind,” just before Ballyhoo, the 3-day series of parties at the Jewish country club in Atlanta. The event, exclusively for German Jews, is designed for young people to hook up with the “right kind” of mate.  

When the play opens, Lala Levy (a ditsy, neurotic young socialite, still date-less for the big final dance) is decorating the family Christmas tree. Her mother confronts her with stern disapproval: “Jewish Christmas trees don’t have stars.”

And so begins a hilarious family comedy with serious undertones and a passel of contradictions. These are Jews desperately trying to look like good Southern Christians, ignoring what’s going on in Germany, immune to the anti-Semitism in their own neighborhood, and totally disdainful of those “other Jews,” the Eastern Europeans who are just “too Jewish.”

“Ballyhoo,” which won a 1997 Tony Award for Best Play and was a finalist for the Pulitzer, is, in Uhry’s own words, “about accepting your own ethnicity and who you are.” People feeling superior to their own kind,” he once said, “is the stupidest kind of bigotry. But it goes on all over the world.”

That universality makes Stokes feels she can capably handle the play. After graduating from the MFA program in directing at UCSD, she’d worked in New York and various regional theaters, but then took time off to have two babies (now age 4 months and 3 1/2 years). She’d been away from the theater for awhile when North Coast Repertory Theatre artistic director Sean Murray called to tell her he’d scored the Southern California premiere of “Ballyhoo,” and it’d be a great way for her to get back to work.

“I was looking for a director that would be new to San Diego audiences,” says Murray, who frequently gives undiscovered people a chance. “I knew she’d bring a smart intellect to the play… This is not necessarily a holiday show, but it’s set in December, and it’s something you can bring the whole family to.   It’s got entertainment value and it also deals with some pretty interesting issues.”

Stokes agrees. “What I love about the play,” says the vibrant, animated brunette, “is that it has the frame of a comedy, but inside, this brutal story of people experiencing spiritual poverty.   To fit in, they’ve bent who they are, and that’s a source of both comedy and drama.

“The play is universal, although it seems very particular. We all have the need to belong. We all can assimilate to a certain point. The question is, to what extent do we do that? What parts do we give up?   What are the things that we’re not willing to give up? It’s the whole question of identity. Who are you really?   What makes you up?

“The horrifying thing is that these Jews, despite their own outsider status, are promoting separatism themselves.   This is so common.   For every ‘Us’ there has to be a ‘Them’ — even if it’s part of Us.”

Stokes has also had Us-Them experiences.   “I was in a situation where people didn’t know I was Italian. They casually talked about wops. I was horrified. That’s what makes this play so special. It’s broad beyond its theme. And I think it was brilliant of Sean to put this right after “The Diary of Anne Frank.”   This is what America was thinking in 1939, but the Jews in Berlin were thinking the same thing: this couldn’t possibly happen.”

Stokes finds an irresistible challenge in the world the playwright has created.

“Uhry has written seven really complex characters. To me, they’re almost Chekhovian. Each of them has a hole inside, and later they find some redemption. Maybe that’s too sentimental. But I think my job is to keep the work honest, to tell this fabulous story making sure that everyone has real needs and is playing for real stakes. I think we walk away seeing more of ourselves in these characters than we thought at the beginning.   As funny and extreme as they are, I see a great deal of humanity in them. I certainly see my family in the play. This isn’t just for Jews. I think it’s gonna be a really good night at the theater. And it’s a perfect show for the holidays. It’s about filling yourself with generosity of spirit. I hope people leave this play moved a little bit, and come away feeling a little more generous to others — and to themselves.”

©1999 Patté Productions Inc.