If Mrs. ("Miss") Daisy Werthan's spiffy 1948 Hudson Commodore glistens these days like a Rolls-Royce, you can thank the class-act pit crew assembled by producers Jed Bernstein and Adam Zotovich and director David Esbjornson. They've tuned up and, at long last, made Broadway-ready Alfred Uhry's 1987 play Driving Miss Daisy.
The man in the driver's seat, who gingerly motored this vehicle into the Golden Theatre, is none other than James Earl Jones. His Hoke Colburn is a patient and compassionate chauffeur-caretaker for the aforementioned Miss Daisy (Vanessa Redgrave, no less), a set-in-her-ways Southern Jewish widow of 72. This initially flinty but ultimately warming match-of-necessity is struck by Miss Daisy's son, Boolie Werthan (Boyd Gaines), who can no longer insure Mama for the open road.
The play is their 15-year journey together — a love story of sorts, although it dare not speak that name in the patriarchal South of the mid-20th century. Both are outcasts in their own land, victims of then-prevailing prejudices.
"I think the play is well balanced between comedy and — I won't say tragedy, but certainly seriousness," assesses Jones. "You do have resonating in this play Martin Luther King and the whole issue of the segregated South, which had been a horror. There are painful, painful events. My character tells about a lynching of someone very close to his life. And we witness, in the play, the bombing of Miss Daisy's synagogue — that was an actual historical event that Alfred put into the play. "It's a personal journey and also a social journey. The personal part cannot be realized because we are socially separated because of segregation. Her son is quite liberal in his behavior. At the first rehearsal, Boyd put out his hand, and I just looked at it like I'm a black man in Georgia in those days. We didn't shake hands with white people. I remember in the Army I was paired up with a white guy from Georgia. We were officers, so I stuck my hand out. He didn't know what to do. He was probably offended as well as surprised. Truman had integrated the armed forces by then, but he [the officer] did not know what to do with that. So there's Boyd with his hand out. We cracked up. His character could do that, not as a rebel but as New Generation."
During its 20-plus years en route to Broadway, Driving Miss Daisy has made some impressive pit stops, picking up the Pulitzer Prize and the Outer Critics Circle Award for the original Playwrights Horizons production with Morgan Freeman and Dana Ivey. Two years later, via the film version with Freeman and Jessica Tandy, it won a Best Picture Academy Award. Its current revival cast of three has collectively raked in seven Tony Awards.
This won't be the first time Jones follows in some well-known footsteps. In 2008, he thunder-footed around his Delta plantation as Big Daddy Pollitt in an all-black revival of Tennessee Williams'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In both cases, he's very aware of the actors who originated the roles and does a deep bow in their direction.
"Once I saw Burl Ives do Big Daddy, I thought, 'I can do that, too — some day.' I finally got the chance, and I'm grateful to him.... It's a role I always wanted to do. Same with Hoke, even after I saw Morgan do it. You can say he did the epitome Hoke, and one should never try to compete with that — it was a wonderful interpretation — but plays that are good have a point of view and a meaning. They are designed to be done every generation, so I said, 'Well, I probably have a Hoke in me.' I'm from Mississippi, same as Morgan, and that's close enough to Georgia."
Jones set the bar impossibly high himself with the Tony-winning work he originated in two other Pulitzer Prize-winning plays: as Jack Jefferson, a fictional facsimile of boxing champion Jack Johnson, in Howard Sackler's 1968 The Great White Hope, and as Troy Maxson, a failed baseballer-turned-garbage collector who philanders away his future, in August Wilson's 1987 Fences. In both, he took the stage like a tsunami, sweeping his leading ladies who somehow stood up to him (Jane Alexander and Mary Alice, respectively) into the Tony-winning circle as well.
Did he happen to catch the recent revival of Fences, which equaled those Tony wins? "You bet. I loved it. It was quite different from ours." Getting there first, however, doesn't cut much ice with Jones. "There will be others who will come along and wipe you out." Case in point: Denzel Washington. "I never had audiences throw panties up on stage at me," Jones notes with a booming laugh.
(This feature appears in the November 2010 Playbill that is distributed in Broadway theatres.)