Pride and prejudice in the emerging South

Driving Miss Daisy’ in New York

3 minute read
Redgrave, Jones: Changing times.
Redgrave, Jones: Changing times.
Driving Miss Daisy is by now familiar to most Americans, if not through its off-Broadway and Broadway iterations of the late 1980s, then through the Academy Award-winning 1989 film with Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman as, respectively, an elderly Jewish matriarch and her loyal black chauffeur over three decades in post-World War II Atlanta. The current Broadway revival finds Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones in the legendary roles, with Boyd Gaines as Daisy's son Boolie. Why spend money on seats that cost many times the price of the DVD? To see three of the finest actors of our times share a stage and work their own particular magic on Alfred Uhry's classic.

It is Gaines who first appears on stage as Boolie, carrying packing boxes in the course of closing up his mother's house. It's the early '70s and Boolie reminisces about his mother as she was in 1948, when he first hired a black chauffeur named Hoke Coleburn to drive his aging mother after she crashed her car into a neighbor's garage.

At first the prideful Miss Daisy is stiff-necked and angry because her son questioned her competence and undermined her independence. Equally vexing, she doesn't want her fellow congregants to think she's flaunting her wealth when she pulls up to the synagogue in her chauffeur-driven car. And of course the driver is a Negro, in '50s parlance.

Small gestures

But necessity and an innate sense of fairness slowly transform Miss Daisy, much as Atlanta and the South are changing. With small gestures and subtle inflections, we understand that she gradually abandons many of her prejudices. But not all: Excited as she is to attend a dinner featuring Martin Luther King, Daisy doesn't know how to graciously extend an invitation to Hoke to join her inside.

James Earl Jones, with his powerful, bulky presence and enormous voice, is a wonderful Hoke— simultaneously respectful, humble and proud. When he gives voice to the humiliation of having to ask Miss Daisy if he can stop the car "to make water," as if he were a child, the elderly lady begins to see what black men must endure in a racially segregated land that provides few of nature's most basic needs for black men. And when her synagogue is bombed (an actual event), she realizes that she and Hoke have more in common than she realized.

Negotiating a raise

Hoke's character also develops over the years. He was never obsequious to begin with, but he grows bolder; in one of the funniest scenes, Hoke negotiates a pay raise from Boolie. He's also shrewd enough to purchase Miss Daisy's cars after she moves up to newer models.

The two, of course, settle into the sort of friendship that Daisy can never enjoy with her snooty daughter-in-law. In the movie, Patti LuPone plays Florine, but Uhry's writing is so adept that we can imagine her without actually having a fourth actor appear in the play.

Everything is spare in this production, directed fluidly by David Esbjornson. He allows the trio of actors to take center stage. The set by John Lee Beatty is simple. Only a few props are used: a staircase, a stove, a desk and a few chairs that double as the car. But they're enough. The occasional film clip— of the Ku Klux Klan or a civil rights march— is projected in the background so that we know the decade has changed.

This is a work so well known that most of the audience is familiar with seminal scenes, such as Daisy's carrying on about a missing can of salmon that she believes Hoke has stolen. And the final scene, where Hoke feeds the feeble Daisy a piece of pie in her nursing home, is one of those memorable moments in both film and theater— a literal demonstration that sometimes, there's nothing more nourishing than comfort food.

What, When, Where

Driving Miss Daisy. By Alfred Uhry; David Esbjornson directed. Through April 9, 2011 at John Golden Theater, 252 West 45th St., New York.

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