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Nancy Boykin as Miss Daisy and Harum Ulmer Jr as Hoke Colburn at the local production of Driving Miss Daisy at the Hedgerow Theatre.

Y’all people Jewish, ain’ you?: Driving Miss Daisy toward the US Elections

-- Henrik Eger

No subject gets discussed more often and more vehemently around the world than the sharp decline of the American economy and the upcoming election between a Democratic African-American presidential candidate and his white Republican opponent. I do not know many plays that made me think of these hard and challenging times as much as Driving Miss Daisy by Alfred Uhry—a writer who intimately knows not only the Jewish world, but the tension and underlying racial currents in the United States—the only American playwright who won three of the most prestigious American awards for dramatic writing: the Academy Award, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the Tony Award.

The Hedgerow Theatre in Media could not have chosen a better play to bring together Jewish people, African-Americans, and whites to laugh, to cry, and to talk about perceptions we may have of each other.

Temple University’s Peter Reynolds directed Driving Miss Daisy at the beautiful Hedgerow Theatre with great sensitivity, so much so that the audience at the opening night gave a standing ovation to the superb cast of the amazing Nancy Boykin as Miss Daisy Werthan, the nuanced and powerful Harum Ulmer, Jr., who played her black driver Hoke Coleburn, and the strong and handsome Andy Joos, who played Daisy’s son Boolie Werthan, a businessman in the South, and Cathie Miglionico’s, who designed the costumes, Zoran Kovcic, who created a beautiful and very functional stage setting, illuminated by the perfect lighting design of Maria Shaplin, all of which enhanced this very intimate play.

Uhry’s drama shows an African-American chauffeur who gets belittled left, right, and center by Miss Daisy, an elderly Jewish lady in Atlanta, GA, who has trouble letting go of the memories of her poor background during her youth. Initially, she carries a great deal of prejudice against people of color, unlike her son who, from the very beginning, presents himself as an open-minded businessman. While Boolie tries to help his mother move forward, she resists it every step of the way, first making fun of Boolie’s wife Florine for enjoying the company of non-Jews, and later teasing her son’s wife for finding “heaven on earth” by “socializing with Episcopalians.”

Miss Daisy mocks “that silly Santa Claus winking on the front door!” of a Jewish house and belittles the looks of her daughter-in-law by saying, “If I had a nose like Florine, I wouldn’t go around saying Merry Christmas to anybody.” When Hoke objects and tells her that he enjoys Christmas at her son’s house, Miss Daisy shoots back, “I don’t wonder. You’re the only Christian in the place.” The audience at the Hedgerow laughed almost non-stop during a play that shows human foibles but also the fear that sits below the humor, a kind of trembling humanity that one doesn’t see too often.

Several times, Miss Daisy refers to her poor economic background, where the family could not even afford to feed a stray cat. Her driver then reminds her, “You is rich, Miz Daisy!”—a notion that she resists as her mindset is still anchored in the past, not in the present. “Yassum,” Hoke replies, but it “look like you doin’ alright now.” In fact, the working class chauffeur becomes a kind of reality check for her, even though she did not acknowledge it until the surprise ending of the play.

Uhry shows the most subtle psychological shades of people from different social classes and ethnic groups who realize that deep down, they all have been discriminated against. The chauffeur, a streetwise man in spite of his attempt to be polite, has the courage to say things that one would not ask in polite society: “Mist’ Werthan? Y’all people Jewish, ain’ you...I’d druther drive for Jews. People always talkin’ bout they stingy and they cheap, but don’t say none of that ‘roun me.” In fact, Mr. Werthan is very generous from the very beginning, and tries to help his mother by paying for the chauffeur, who becomes her companion, of sorts, and her sounding board.

Given the subtle racial tensions in this society as they are being played out every day in election commercials, articles, and conversations by the water coolers up and down the US, Miss Daisy, with her Southern Jewish values, slowly undergoes a change because she experiences some of her driver’s realities. For example, according to the laws in those days, people of color were not allowed to use a restroom at gas stations in the South.

Once Miss Daisy experiences her own synagogue being bombed, a real paradigm shift takes place in her head. When Hoke informs her that she can’t go to the Temple, she responds in her usual Pavlovian manner: “Well, it’s a mistake. I’m sure they meant to bomb one of the conservative synagogues or the orthodox one. The Temple is reform. Everybody knows that.”

When her driver responds, “It doan’ matter to them people. A Jew is a Jew to them folks. Jes like light or dark we all the same nigger,” Miss Daisy still refuses to believe it, but she eventually finds her way to attend a dinner in honor of Martin Luther King. While the old lady is beginning to change, her open-minded and generous son has second thoughts about any public support for a person of color.

She teases her son: “The Werthan Company will go out of business if you attend the King dinner?” Challenged, the successful businessman then shares with her how vulnerable he feels: “A lot of the men I do business with wouldn’t like it. They wouldn’t come right out and say so. They’d just snicker and call me Martin Luther Werthan behind my back—something like that. And I’d begin to notice that my banking business wasn’t being handled by the top dogs. Maybe I’d start to miss out on a few special favors, a few tips. I wouldn’t hear about certain lunch meetings at the Commerce Club. Little things you can’t quite put your finger on…I still have to conduct business in this town.”

He then asks his mother, “When did you get so fired up about Martin Luther King? Time was, I’d have heard a different story,” to which she replies in her contrarian manner, “Why, Boolie! I’ve never been prejudiced and you know it!” It’s at that moment that the driver says what might characterize both the situation in the past and in our own time: “Things changin’, but they ain’t change all dat much.”

The old driver in some ways represents Everyman, who endures in spite of the forces that work against him. When his boss, Mr. Werthan, wishes Miss Daisy “Happy Thanksgiving,” he tells her, “Remember, Mama. [Florine’s] a Republican National Committee-woman now,” to which the now liberated Miss Daisy replies, full of contempt, “Good God!”

The tough old lady also shows a caring side. For example, while planting flowers on her husband’s grave, Miss Daisy realizes that her chauffeur cannot read the gravestones. She immediately swings into action and teaches him to put individual letters together to spell. Later, at Christmas, one of the most moving scenes of the play takes place when she takes a small package wrapped in brown paper from her purse, assuring her driver that “This isn’t a Christmas present…You know I don’t give Christmas presents … I just happened to run across it this morning.” When the illiterate Hoke unwraps the package, he fights tears, looking at her gift for him, “Ain’ nobody ever give me a book,” and laboriously reading the cover, “Hand Writing Copy Book—Grade Five.”

But just before he may become too sentimental, Miss Daisy reverts to her regular pattern of communication: “Jews don’t have any business giving Christmas presents. And you don’t need to go yapping about this to Boolie and Florine.”

I was reminded of Mother Courage, who, like Miss Daisy, was not exactly a paradigm of virtue and gentleness; yet, audiences around the globe always admired her toughness and her feisty way of defying the world. Bertolt Brecht, who wanted his Mother Courage and her Children to be a didactic play that teaches about the forces of evil, rewrote her role numerous times to roughen up her character, and still the audiences loved her.

The same is true for Uhry’s Miss Daisy: no matter how prickly and narrow-minded and suspicious she appears at times, her innermost goodness comes through powerfully. For example, when in her nineties, frail and helpless, and living in a retirement home, she takes Hoke’s hand and tells her former driver—now an old man who can’t drive any more but who still visits her as often as he can—that he is her “best friend.” He then cuts a small piece of the Thanksgiving pie and gently feeds her like his own child.

Quite a few members of the audience laughed and cried many times during a performance that, as the discussions afterwards showed, reminded many theatre goers of our own times and those hidden forces that make people vote their fears and not their strengths, punch the screens of voting machines with old prejudices and not new visions. Miss Daisy, the former schoolteacher and her black chauffeur are still driving, not only on the stage of the Hedgerow, the oldest theatre in the Philadelphia area, but also in the minds of all those who opened up to one of the most moving plays in modern American drama.

As a college professor who conducts a weekly workshop on “News Around the World” at Martins Run, America’s oldest Jewish retirement home, I asked myself, “and who is going to drive the many Miss Daisies and the many Hoke Coleburns of our own time to the election booth on November 4th?”

Driving Miss Daisy, Hedgerow Theatre (610) 565-4211

Henrik Eger, Ph.D., author of the docudrama Metronome Ticking; the play Mendelssohn Does Not Live Here Anymore; Board member of Theatre Ariel, the Jewish Theatre of Philadelphia; and writer-director of the YouTube video All About Jewish Theatre: The World’s Largest Secular Synagogue and Open University. www.henrikeger.com

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