WILMINGTON — Heralded on Broadway (three Outer Critics Circle, one Obie award) as well as in Hollywood (four Oscars, three Golden Globes), “Driving Miss Daisy” launched in 1987 and won the Pulitzer Prize in dramatic writing for its portrayal of an unlikely friendship that challenged the racial divide at a heated time in the American South. Though a lot has changed since the play’s timeline — 1948 to 1973 — even today it stands as a stark reminder that the depths of discrimination are within short reach in our nation’s history, past and present.
“We spent a fair amount of time immersing ourselves in the historical events of the time period, the social mores that drive the character’s actions and the history of the various locations where all the action takes place,” director Debra Gillingham told Port City Daily Thursday. Gillingham is directing the show for Thalian Association, which opens Friday night at Thalian Hall. It will be her first experience with the production — one she hasn’t seen onstage, nor on screen, sans a few clips.
“I love that — no preconceptions,” Gillingham said.
The production spans 25 years in Atlanta, Georgia, when Hoke Colburn, begins driving Daisy Werthan at the insistence of her son, Boolie. Playwright Alfred Ulry wrote the piece, what he once called his “family memoir,” based on life as he observed it. The main character Daisy was taken from his grandmother, though Ulry admitted in interviews she was constructed out of composites of many of his relatives in Atlanta. Hoke was established after a man named Will Coleman — Ulry’s grandmother’s chauffeur.
Hoke and Daisy, though bound by occupational ties, end up having a friendship that grows through the years, strengthening through strife during the Jim Crow-era South, into the civil rights movement and thereafter. Thus, overt themes of racism play heavily in the script.
The story begins with a widow, 72-year-old Daisy, wrecking her car while backing out of a garage, which convinces Boolie to hire a chauffeur (in the South, that usually meant a Black man) to transport his mother on her daily errands and nightly engagements. Fiercely stubborn and independent, Daisy stands against the arrangement and wants nothing to do with the driver. But, with Hoke’s gentle, respectful fortitude, she eventually agrees to a grocery store run. It sets afoot a bond that slowly breaks down barriers and prejudices.
Fracaswell “Cas” Hyman will be performing as Hoke for the first time. The local actor saw the play’s original New York run in 1987, when it debuted at Playwrights Horizons 42nd Street Theater Row space, before it ever hit Broadway or was a movie.
“I was 19 years old,” Hyman remembered.
“Driving Miss Daisy” begins when Hoke is 60.
“I believe I’ve ‘grown into the part’ as the years have gone by,” Hyman said. “But I was a bit hesitant at first because times have changed, and as we’ve become more ‘woke,’ aspects of Hoke as a character have come into question.”
The driver is mild-tempered, even-keeled and always respectful, even against Daisy’s bull-headedness and unsavory discriminations. As their relationship deepens and trust builds, the audience sees confidence grow in Hoke wherein he can speak out a little more.
“[He] becomes more daring in sharing his thoughts, beliefs and opinions with Daisy, without worrying or caring if he gets fired or not,” Hyman said.
Though the role is bound by the times — a Black man whose job is to be of service to a white person — Hyman really worried about playing “a one-dimensional ‘magical Negro,’” who’s written to primarily help a white woman transform her racist beliefs. Hyman reconciled his approach to the role in homage to Black and brown people who came before him — who “had to take on subservient jobs and positions in society to survive.” He said to discount time and place, and the limited scope of power afforded during that time, would be a disservice.
“We stand on the shoulders of those men and women,” Hyman said. “Their resilience, strength and determination to make a better life for their children and grandchildren is what I’m aiming to portray.”
Creating that sense of history and backstory with Elizabeth Michaels as Daisy and Woody Stefl as Boolie has been “rewarding,” Hyman added. It allowed honest portrayals onstage to build believable situations and connections.
“Cas and I listen to each other’s words and react to that,” Michaels said. “You know, like, what you’re supposed to do with the people you deal with all the time: Listen, understand, feel, ask questions, and try not to judge.”
It’s Michaels first time in the role of Daisy. She admitted a dislike for her character at the onset. It wasn’t easy for the actress to get past her curmudgeonly and regimented ways.
“She really doesn’t like things to change,” Michaels described. “And she’s very patronizing and sharp-tongued.”
Michaels said she had to work harder to move past inherent prejudices too — an interesting process, since Daisy “doesn’t see herself as prejudiced,” the actress described.
Yet, with Hoke’s influence, she said Daisy’s edges soften in the play — he helps widen her eyes and expands her heart. Once Michaels settled into the role, she said she came to appreciate her character more, especially her humor, which moves beyond obvious sarcasm at the onset.
“I didn’t see the nice funny side of her at first,” Michaels admitted.
As the play progresses and the audience learns of her past as a teacher, the characteristics that fully paint Daisy human become more apparent. Her uncompromising ways melt into becoming helpful, even motivating, such as in the cemetery scene when she learns Hoke can’t read.
“Daisy, having been a teacher, is good about helping Hoke,” Michaels said. “She’s very encouraging: ‘You can do this!’”
Gillingham said the dynamics of the script capture social, racial and religious tolerance, yet go deeper into interconnections of people whose humanity isn’t always apparent. “Driving Miss Daisy” highlights the hardships of family, friendships and of aging as well.
“It’s been wonderful watching these actors bare their souls and observing the relationships develop between the characters,” Gillingham praised.
Behind the scenes, the team has devised a world that moves the script through 25 scenes, representative of the show’s 25-year timeline. “They take place in a variety of places,’ Gillingham said.
Set designer Benedict Fancy has created Daisy’s home and car, and Boolie’s office. Costume designer Lance Howell “navigates the passage of time” and place, according to the director: “The seamless transitions … must happen quickly so the audience can take this emotional journey with us.”
Though the play takes place 40-plus years ago, Hyman said it still strikes a chord in our modern-day setting. He doesn’t look past the 2016 presidential election to see the prongs of racism still poke and prod.
“I saw a news interview of some people doing a boat caravan to support Trump,” Hyman explained. “They claimed they had thrived financially under Trump and had earned everything they had without the support of their privilege as white Americans. They rejected the idea that there is systemic racism in this country, and expounded the belief that if they could pull themselves up by their bootstraps, anyone who didn’t work as hard as them were just lazy. I was deeply offended by this because some of us have to fight to get boots before we can even struggle to pull them up by the straps.”
Hyman compared such commentary to a moment in the play when Daisy accuses Hoke of stealing a can of salmon from her. Daisy says, “They are like having children in the house. They want something and they just take it.”
“Those same disparaging ideas about people of color are still around today and are a part of what makes our country so divided,” Hyman continued.
“My favorite line of Hoke’s in the play is, ‘Things changin’, but they ain’t change all dat much.’ … [I]t’s true and I want the audiences to hear it and recognize the fact that we’ve got a lot more work to do to create a fair and equitable society for everyone.”
Originally set to open in 2020 but was rescheduled twice because of the pandemic, Thalian Association will open “Driving Miss Daisy” Friday night at 7:30 p.m. The show will run weekends through Oct. 10, with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., at Thalian Hall. Tickets are $39.50 plus service charge.
Thalian Hall has instituted enhanced safety protocols, and audience members are required to wear masks at all times unless eating and drinking.
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