What's all this 'Ballyhoo'?
by Tamara Stokes
There's a lot of ballyhoo going on at the new Greenville Avenue Center for the Arts, Feb. 14 to March 15, at 5601 Sears Street in Dallas. The new Contemporary Theatre troupe is presenting their second production, "The Last Night of Ballyhoo." Audiences get a glimpse of how the wealthy, socially aware and oh-so-politically correct Southern Jewish Freitag family spend holidays in December.
The play is set in Atlanta, circa 1939, and Clark Gable is in town for the "Gone With the Wind" premiere. Patriarch Uncle Adolph Freitag's niece, Lala, is obsessed with all things Margaret Mitchell, and she and her mother (Beulah) scheme to secure a suitable escort for the holiday gala and play namesake, annually sponsored by their club.
"Ballyhoo" was written by Alfred Uhry, the author of "Driving Miss Daisy." "Ballyhoo" received the 1997 Tony Award for best play. The assimilated and confused holiday traditions, the wealthy Jewish Freitag family celebrate, provide a clue to their own identity and religious crises. When a first-generation New Yorker arrives and asks Sunny Freitag whether her family was "afraid to be Jewish," the Freitags rethink their faith, religion and relationships.
The non-Jewish cast of "Ballyhoo" received Yiddish, Hebrew and religious guidance from Dona Safran and financial support and leadership from board member Marc Andres, both Jewish.
Safran, an actress, lived in New York and attended a conservative shul during her stay in the Big Apple. She also had an orthodox roommate when she attended the University of Texas at Austin.
"I was raised in Dallas and attended Temple Emanu-El as a child. Although I don't attend a specific synagogue now, I researched the information and drew upon my experiences with orthodox and conservative traditions.
"There was a scene in the play that was almost identical to my experience growing up. I was going to a club to swim with a Christian friend and her mother told me not to tell anyone I was Jewish. That was the first time I was ever aware there was policy similar to the military's 'don't ask, don't tell' attitude toward the gay community."
She said her family grew up decorating a Christmas tree and lighting Chanukah candles because her father strongly believed in "being like everyone else and focusing on the similarities, not differences, among their neighbors."
Safran said she just wasn't within the age range to play either the mothers or the daughters depicted in the play. She has worked with director Jamie Baker Knapp on other occasions.
Cast members include Cindee Mayfield (Reba Freitag), Jamie Baker Knapp (director and facility executive director), David Meyer (stage manager), Renee Krapff (Lala Levy), Sue Loncar (Beulah "Boo" Levy), Halim Jabbour (Joe Farkas), Elizabeth Van Winkle (Sunny Freitag) and James Gilbert (Peachy Weil).
The architectural lines of the interiors, representative of the classical-revival style popular when the structure was built in 1918, provide great acoustics and an intimate feel to the 100-seat venue. Even audience chairs are refurbished antiques, sporting stylized lyre backs and padded rose-colored seats. Jamie Baker Knapp, executive director, also schedules events. Ammenities include accommoations for 225 standing or 125 seated, catering kitchen, bar and walking distance from Greenville Avenue.
Sue Loncor, who spearheaded creation of the Contemporary Theater, did so to provide actresses in their 30s and 40s more local opportunities to perform. Along the way, Loncor's husband has supported her quest, and her initial plan expanded into the financing and remodeling of the old church at 5601 Sears Street. His gift has allowed Loncor to share her gift, not only to the theater community, but to the Dallas community at large.
In a letter to the audience that appears in "Ballyhoo" programs, Loncar says, "Thank you for being part of making a dream come true. Each individual here is part of that dream...We have picked plays that depict relationships...that sometimes require difficult choices. Whether it is a mother, a sibling, a lover, a friend or a child, we all struggle to connect, to communicate, to find intimacy, acceptance, tolerance and above all, love."
The play, focusing on the relationships within a Jewish family, fulfills Loncor's goal of audience identification through the familar tensions among mothers and daughters, in-laws, siblings and suitors. The characters are portrayed realistically, with humor in all the right places, even when tough subjects are tackled.
The theater's venue caters to mainstream audiences, although topics and issues explored certainly will push audiences to examine their own preconceptions and place in society and the world. Upcoming productions include "A Girl's Guide to Chaos," May 9-13; "Close Ties," July 11-Aug. 2; and "Baby," Aug. 29-Sept. 20. To find out more about upcoming Contemporary Theater productions or the Greenville Avenue Center for the Arts, contact Knapp at (214) 828-0094 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was published in the DallasJewishWeek
on: Friday, February 21, 2003