Miss America's Ugly Daughter is one of the more memorable titles in recent memory, and it's a perfect encapsulation of writer-star Barra Grant's dark humor. The real-life daughter of the first (and only) Jewish Miss America, Bess Myerson, Grant's solo show looks unflinchingly at their tense relationship and Grant's unhappy childhood.
By the play's end, "I feel wonderful," Grant admits over the phone. "I've been on a journey that takes me from being a fairly unhappy kid, through my adulthood wrestling with various demons, and at the end of the show I find that forgiveness will set you free. Forgiving anyone you feel has slighted you or inhibited you—and also forgiving yourself."
Directed by Eve Brandstein and currently playing through March 1 at the Marjorie S. Dean Little Theatre, Grant's show also delves into her relationship with her own daughter. And though most audience members may not be able to relate to being the child of the 1945 Miss America, the response to the more universal aspects of Grant's story has been overwhelmingly positive.
"When they leave, they have the desire to come up to me and thank me for various reasons," Grant says. "Either because it’s been a cathartic experience for them or because they were moved or they found it wonderful to be able to laugh at things you usually can’t laugh at. But I treat tragedy and difficulty with humor."
That humor was Grant's saving grace, providing her a career as an actor, screenwriter, director, and now playwright.
"I love scaling mountains," she says. "Anything worthwhile is a challenge, and if I didn’t have a challenge in my life, I don’t know what I’d do. I’ve always sought them out."
That includes Miss America's Ugly Daughter, which Grant says was easier to write because her mother had already passed away. ("My mother in real life didn’t have much of a sense of humor, so I don’t know if she would have laughed at the show," she says. "But I think she would have been entertained.")
"It was liberating in a way when she passed to be able to explore things that might have been difficult to go into when she was alive," Grant adds. And the process also gave her a new perspective on her mother, allowing Grant the chance to step back and look at what had shaped Myerson, from going on her Miss America tour in a hostile environment during a year of strong anti-Semitism to eventually stepping into the political arena, falling in love with the wrong man, and seeing her reputation shredded in the press.
"That was a fascinating thing to explore, because when you’re at the top of the top, to become somebody who loses your terrific reputation and your ability to be keep going—in a way, she had to reinvent herself. Which she did. She kind of rose like a phoenix and continued to speak out about anti-Semitism, about Israel. She kept raising a lot of money for the Jews, and remained in the public sphere."
Grant kept persevering herself, something she recreates at each performance. But the process of walking audiences through her life is worth it. "That feeling I get at the end of the show is so euphoric that I feel kind of blessed and happy," she says. "And it’s an incredible journey to take the audience through."