I was so excited when I received a press invitation to a meet and greet with the playwright, director and stars of the Broadway play “Driving Miss Daisy.” This drama will play at the John Golden Theater, located at 252 West 45th Street. It stars James Earl Jones (JEJ) and Vanessa Redgrave (VR) in the lead roles of Hoke Coleburn (the chauffeur) and Ms. Daisy Werthan.
At the meet and greet, there was a panel discussion about the play lead by one of the producers, Jed Bernstein (JB). Adam Zotovich is also a producer.
During the discussion, Bernstein asked questions and received answers from Jones; Redgrave; actor Boyd Gaines (BG); who plays Ms. Daisy’s son Boolie; playwright Alfred Uhry (AU); and director David Esbjornson (DE).
The meet and greet took place in an intimate room at the Roundabout Rehearsal Studios. The Q&A follows.
JB: Alfred, how did the play start? Was this idea in your head and heart your whole life?
AU: It was just the life that I lived. But I had never written a play. I had written books and musicals. I thought I could write a play about my childhood in Atlanta, and it went on from there.
JB: David, you talk about the time in which this play is set and that period of American history, could you talk about that?
DE: One of the things that struck me when I read the play is that I’m doing a revival of a play that took place in 1982. The attitudes and country have moved to some place new. But then, Alfred’s also writing a play that took place from the 1950s to the 1970s, so we keep going backwards and having to look back.
I thought that when approaching this production, it would be interesting to actually embrace that idea and to find a way in which it could become a memory play–that we weren’t trying to say these were the politics of today, but that there was a very important part in American history where some incredible things, movements were happening both personally and politically and capture some of that feeling as a time when some of those same issues are on the rise again. So the play is very timely.
JB: Vanessa, you’ve played so many iconic characters. How do you decide what you’re interested in?
VR: It’s the play as a whole. This is an extraordinary play, a superb play, and that’s what stands out.
JB: James Earl, you’ve done so many things in so many ways–voiceovers, movies–but you keep coming back to the stage. What is it that keeps you coming back to theater?
JEJ: It’s a job, and jobs are nice to have. We actors, no matter how well known we may be, can never feel that we are above unemployment. I was trained for the stage through summer stock and the American Theater Wing. I like to work; you mentioned voiceovers. I’ll find anyone to do a job.
JB: In your early years, you were in Mississippi. Did you know a lot of the characters in this play?
JEJ: I took on Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” because I felt I knew that man. I knew him as a Black person and as a white person. The same with Hoke. I know this character.
JB: One can’t help but realize how much of a family you all have become. When you go into a play, especially with a small cast, is that a concern?
BG: It’s always a concern that you’ll not only get along with your fellow actors, but be able to collaborate. But these two are magicians, and you don’t see how they do it. Sometimes, I think to myself I’m working with James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave, but they’re Hoke and Mama. It’s easy to come together because they are just sweethearts.
JB: Alfred what’s it like to revisit “Driving Miss Daisy”?
AU: It’s double nostalgic from when it first started and for what really happened in the ’50s and ’60s. And these two are magicians, and I don’t know what they do, either. I sit and watch and I say, “Oh my God. It’s not them; it’s them.” It’s stunning. They transform themselves without doing anything.
JB: David, do you approach a classic different than another piece of work?
DE: I try not to. Any piece of literature–whether you’re doing Shakespeare or any other classic play–requires you revisit it in a new way, and you have to try to make it feel as relevant as it was when it was written. You succeed–to a greater [or] lesser extent–depending on your approach, but also the talent that you have assembled.
One of the remarkable things about this group of people is that we have a really good shot at making this play feel very current, and as a new experience, there’s such particular energies coming from these three people that I think the experience is going to feel new. That’s my experience, all ready in the rehearsal room.
JB: Vanessa, you were particularly pleased that we were going to be at the Golden Theater because of the size. It’s one of the smallest Broadway houses. How does that help you with this particular play?
VR: The nicest thing is when you can make contact with the audience. Like dropping something into someone’s lap and just saying, “Excuse me.”
JEJ: I realized today that the character Ms. Redgrave is playing and the way she’s playing it reminds me of my grandmother–nothing in terms of age, ethnicity or anything–but the soul of that person. My grandmother was more of a racist than Ms. Daisy would ever image being. She was part Cherokee Indian and African-American, and when she found out how the races had betrayed each other–being a Mississippian–she hated all races, including the Black race and she taught her children and grandchildren, the same hatred.
When I was 14, I had to sort things out for myself, which was my first exercise in independent thinking, so she did me a favor. At the same time, when I went into acting at the summer stock theater, the first person in the front row was Maggie Connelly. That endeared me to her because she knew drama. She was so proud that she had a grandson who participated in a form a drama that she knew so well from real life. Murders, rapes, lynching, floods–all day, that was her life, and the hatred was only a little part of what she experienced.
So when I look at Hoke and his relationship with her, that’s what people are supposed to do–find a friendship. And it’s usually hard; it’s been hard in the South since Reconstruction, and it’s still going on. How do you find friendship with anyone–not just someone from another race–but with your own family?
Reporters at the event were then able to ask questions of the panel and I’m glad to share those also.
Q: Mr. Jones, this play resonates on so many levels. Is there anything that resonates with you and informs your performance?
JEJ: Making connections with the character is written in alchemy, these little formulas. You read the words, and something happens to you, and you read them with each other, and something else happens with you. And Alfred is responsible for that. What happens a lot is a sense of humor. We’re still exploring this play; we’re not done yet. But you discover the humor that’s not intended, but it’s there. In a bitter, hard world, there’s something to laugh about, and that, maybe, accounts for people’s sanity.
Q: In this time when you see so much racial discord, how do you think this play may help with that relationship?
JEJ: I don’t ever expect a play that I’m in to convey a message. Messages are conveyed by lectures; a play is not a lecture. I hope it will give an experience through the characters that the audience will say, “I know.” Like I said, my grandmother was that person. So, it makes me understand my grandmother better.
I don’t know if the play will help anybody, it will give you another glimpse from another angle, another time. You’ll see what kind of patience is required of people, especially people who are powerless–not just Hoke, but Ms. Daisy–powerless to change things that were wrong in the world.
Q: Ms. Redgrave, what do you love about this character? What do you respond to?
VR: It’s the play. I’m not sure I’m capable of telling you what’s special about Ms. Daisy. What’s extraordinary about this play is hearing so much, learning so much and seeing things from other people’s eyes. We like to see things the way we like to see them. It’s hard to see things with another person’s eyes. That’s only one of the reasons that makes this play so special. This play is one of those rare acts of creation that assists you to go all the way there.
Q: David, when you’re directing actors of this caliber, do you take a different approach, is there more give and take?
DE: Absolutely. One of the most exciting things about working with these three wonderful performers are all the ideas, thinking and impulses that they bring to the table, and you’re knitting all those things together. You are also obligated as a director to shape and put certain kinds of perimeters and theatrical approaches onto the play, and you don’t want to get in the way of the play. The challenging thing is to ride that line. And I think it’s the same with working with this talent. You don’t want to crush really wonderful impulses, and yet, your job is to select and to shave.
Q: Visually, what will we see from this production?
DE: I saw the off-Broadway production, and it was simple. It was celebrating the language and the actors. But, we have a movie that has happened in between, and they lift the bar. When you come back to this, you want to make sure that the experience has the fullness that it had in the movie theater, but you have to celebrate the fact that it’s a play. What I love about this material is that it is inherently theatrical, and it puts the actors front and center and the physical production is meant to do that. It’s a celebration of this great talent in an intimate space. You get up close and personal with these icons of theater, and yet, at the same time, we’re adding some visual things. We’re working with projection and scenic elements like a staircase. It is fragments that break apart and come together.
There was such an excitement in the room during this meet and greet. Try to make your way to the Golden Theater to see “Driving Miss Daisy” with James Earl Jones, who by the way, will be 80 years old in January. The show is currently running. The official opening will be on October 25.