The Black-Jewish Color Line In Atlanta
Wed, 09/15/2010
Staff Writer
James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave star in Alfred Uhry’s play about two outsiders in Southern society.
James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave star in Alfred Uhry’s play about two outsiders in Southern society.

They make an odd couple, to be sure, but the story of their relationship is one of the most moving in contemporary drama. In Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy,” which will staged on Broadway next month, a fiercely independent, elderly Jewish widow in Atlanta, Daisy Werthan (Vanessa Redgrave), develops an unlikely friendship with her black chauffeur, Hoke Colburn (James Earl Jones). David Esbjornson (“Tuesdays with Morrie,” “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?”) directs the play about two outsiders in Southern society who ultimately learn to honor each other’s intelligence, compassion, and drive. The production also features four-time Tony Award-winner Boyd Gaines as Miss Daisy’s son, Boolie.

“Driving Miss Daisy” is the first of a trilogy about Jewish life in Atlanta, which continues with “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” about tensions between German and Ashkenazic Jews in the South, and the musical about the Leo Frank murder case, “Parade.” The much-decorated play won a Pulitzer Prize when it first appeared Off-Broadway in 1988 with Morgan Freeman and Dana Ivey. Turned into a film in 1989 starring Freeman and Jessica Tandy, the movie won four Oscars, including Best Picture.

In an interview, Uhry told The Jewish Week that he based the title character on his maternal grandmother, a teacher who corrected his letters from camp with a red pencil and recoiled whenever her grandchildren tried to kiss her. While her lack of humor could be unintentionally hilarious, Uhry recalled, Southern Jewish life did carry serious overtones. “Jews were sort of white people but not exactly — we were out of the loop too,” he said. “I looked at being Jewish as a kind of affliction, like a blind eye or a lame leg. It took me a couple of trips to Israel to land hard on what I missed and realize that I was robbed of a positive sense of Jewish identity.”

But if Jews were second-class, citizens, Uhry noted, blacks were third class. In the play, Miss Daisy considers herself above racial prejudice, but she ultimately has to confront her own attitudes toward blacks, and come to terms with the ways in which she has aligned herself with white society. “She has a great spark of humanity, an ability to grow and change, albeit in her own feisty way,” Uhry said.

By the end of the play, Miss Daisy reluctantly acknowledges her dependence on Hoke, a dependence that has grown into outright affection. “Morgan Freeman calls the play a love story,” the playwright said, “and I realized that that’s exactly what it is.”

“Driving Miss Daisy” begins previews on Oct. 7 for an Oct. 25 opening at the John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St. For tickets, $66.50-$126.50, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.