Finding What Drives Miss Daisy and Hoke by Ed Rampell

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Mary Lou Rosato, Brad Reed and Willie C. Carpenter in “Driving Miss Daisy”

Most Americans don’t think of Jews when they think of the South. But Alfred Uhry has raised the profile of Southern Jewish culture more than any other playwright. The process began with his Pulitzer-winning Driving Miss Daisy in 1987 and continued with The Last Night of Ballyhoo and Parade, both of which won Tonys. The Oscar-winning movie version of Daisy, with screenplay by Uhry, raised the profile even higher.

A revival of Driving Miss Daisy opens Friday at Sierra Madre Playhouse. Mary Lou Rosato plays the aging widow Daisy Werthan and Willie C. Carpenter portrays Daisy’s chauffeur Hoke Coleburn.

Rosato attended New York’s fabled Juilliard School.“Shakespeare and the classics is truly my background,” asserts Rosato, who won a Drama Desk Award for The School for Scandal. She now also teaches acting and is the co-head of BFA Acting at CalArts, where her teaching focuses on the dramatist from Stratford-upon-Avon. The slim Rosato is five-feet-six but appears to be taller — “I’m a walking optical illusion,” she quips.

Her on- and Off- Broadway Shakespearean credits include A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Measure for Measure, Merry Wives of Windsor, Hamlet and Henry V. In LA, she played Kent in the CalArts Center for New Theater production of King Lear, at the Brewery in 2002. Rosato is also no stranger to Uhry’s plays, having portrayed Salome in the first Broadway production of The Robber Bridegroom in 1975 (Uhry received his first Tony nomination for Bridegroom).

She relocated to Los Angeles in the 1990s, and her LA stage credits include Changes of Heart at the Mark Taper Forum in 1996, 2004’s The Peach Blossom at REDCAT, The Clean House at South Coast Repertory in 2005 and the 2009 production of Euripides’ Medea starring Annette Bening at the Freud Playhouse. Rosato’s screen credits include the 1995 Al Pacino indie Two Bits, the 1989 Brooke Shields vehicle Brenda Starr and a recurring role on the Titus sitcom.

Willie C. Carpenter is one of those actors whose face is recognizable, even if fans may not know his name. After being laid off from a factory job in Dayton, Ohio, he applied for a grant that enabled him to attend Ohio State University, majoring in broadcast journalism. After graduating, the 29-year-old “decided to roll the dice,” as he puts it, pursuing a modeling career in New York. Following his third audition, the residual bug bit after Carpenter landed a national spot in a Head and Shoulders commercial. He went on to make a living doing principal and extra work in TV and print ads, ranging from a Navy recruitment spot to commercials for Microsoft, Prudential, Walmart, Applebee’s, Plavix, a barbecue sauce and an investment firm.

He also pursued an acting career. His stage credits include The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 at Circle Rep and on Broadway, the Preston Sturges play A Cup of Coffee Off-Broadway and in 1992 at the Pasadena Playhouse and Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting at the Old Globe in San Diego and the Pasadena Playhouse. He toured with Leslie Uggams in Blue.

Over the years the New York-based Carpenter has appeared in recurring roles on the sitcom The Wonder Years and the police procedural Reasonable Doubts, plus spots on Cosby, General Hospital. He played what might have been daytime TV’s first African American ghost in the soap opera The Guiding Light. He plays a four-star general in several episodes of the new NBC White House sitcom 1600 Penn. Carpenter’s big-screen roles include a homeless vet in John Wu’s 1993 Hard Target and a police inspector opposite Will Smith in 1997’s Men In Black.

As for acting techniques, Carpenter has an ecumenical approach, saying, “I use all of them. I use whatever works.”

David Ogden Stiers and Mary Lou Rosato in The Acting Company’s 1973 production of “The School for Scandal.” Photo courtesy Juilliard School

Rosato, too, has a smorgasbord attitude: “I don’t adhere to any one person. The way I was trained was you cobble together your process… You adopt certain ways of looking at the text and character. I’ve had a taste of every technique there is; many of them have become very meaningful to me…I myself can feel when I’m completely concentrated on the role and going after what I have to do on the stage…When you’re an actor you don’t just work on it for a certain amount of time then leave it alone. If you’re working on a role it follows you to sleep at night. It lays in the bed with you and it gets up in the morning.”

Both thespians can draw on some Southern roots to bring their characters alive. Carpenter was born in Alabama before being raised in Dayton. “When I picked the script up, I know these people,” he says. “These are my people. This is where I come from.”

Rosato’s father was from Alabama, and she was raised in Miami. “Driving Miss Daisy is a very interesting play,” she says, “because it’s got comedy and some moments that are painfully real. So walking back and forth over that line is really an interesting process for an actor because you have to find what’s the tone of this piece?… Alfred Uhry is incredibly precise and minimal in his writing. He doesn’t overwrite the words at all. Sometimes a little ‘what’ — what do you mean? It’s all that’s there in the text and it looks so plain — but it isn’t; it’s deep.”

Rosato saw Atlanta-born Dana Ivey play Daisy Off-Broadway in 1987. Rosato also has big shoes to fill in regards to the character’s screen incarnation — those of Jessica Tandy, the three-time Tony winner who nabbed the best actress Oscar for the 1989 film. Rosato remains undaunted by “try[ing] to forget all of the wonderful ladies” who previously incarnated the indomitable Daisy.

Morgan Freeman originated the role of Hoke in its 1987 Off-Broadway production and went on to receive an Obie for the theatrical version and a best actor Oscar nomination for the 1989 screen adaptation of Daisy, which won the best picture Oscar. What’s it like getting into the driver’s seat where Freeman sat?

“Well, it’s frightening,” confesses Carpenter. “This play frightens me more than anything else I’ve done…I never saw Morgan do it on stage but I actually auditioned for that when it first came out.”

The 80-minute, three-character play is challenging to mount. Rosato says, “It’s a bit of a marathon part. You’ve got to travel in the role — it’s got instant changes… you’ve got to be mercurial.” During the course of the play Rosato says her “physicality… and voice changes” as Daisy, who starts the one-act as a 72-year-old, then ages 25 years before the curtain closes. Rosato previously played characters older than her own age, such as Euripides’ Hecuba and Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage. Hoke is somewhat younger than Daisy. “They age along together,” Rosato says.

Rosato describes Daisy as being “liberal” but “a product of her times” with “lots of belle-ish qualities.” She has “a desire to be independent, on her own and not lose anything that will keep her from being in charge of her own life,” which sets the stage for the matron’s conflict with Hoke, who is hired by Daisy’s son Boolie (Brad David Reed) to help Daisy to get around. “She tries to get rid of Hoke because she wants to be on her own,” explains Rosato. “She tries to sabotage him, tests him, she pushes him, tries to get him out of her life in the beginning part of the play. Hoke has a warmth, tenaciousness and understanding…that lets him stay, that keeps him grounded in that life. He can weather anything Daisy throws at him.”

Carpenter’s take on Daisy and his character’s relationship with her is “it starts out, I don’t want to say adversarial, [but] she doesn’t want this guy to drive. She doesn’t want anybody driving her — she wants her independence and she’s fighting it…I promise her son, no matter what, I’m gonna hold on, no matter what she says. And she fights and she fights it, and pretty soon we get to know each other and she realizes I’m not who she thought I was and we become friends.” In a moment of understatement, Carpenter adds, “She’s not easy.”

Rosato says Daisy and Hoke’s relationship “goes through so many different kinds of changes that from the very top of the play until where they end up, it’s a process of a developing friendship… A mutual respect happens. They come from such different experiences and backgrounds… She’s an educated woman, she’s a retired school teacher and becomes Hoke’s teacher, she starts teaching him how to read. That’s a really big transition in their relationship… Yet there are seminal things about the relationship that begin to allow them to see each other as very similar.”

How might the relationship between Daisy and Hoke, who are both widowed, have evolved if they didn’t live in a segregated society with apartheid-like taboos about race, as well as class and age, and had met earlier in their lives? “It certainly seems like they’re an old married couple,” muses Rosato. “They talk with each other with great freedom. Yes, I agree; there’s such complexity to what happens to their relationship. It turns on just a word in the text; it’s really beautifully written… Whether they’re attracted to each other — they’re beyond that kind of excitement. The depth, that thing that goes beyond, that connection is there.”

Carpenter believes, “We deal with each other like an old couple. Which is basically what we’ve become,” as humanity and perhaps even love triumph over racism.

Stitched into the tapestry of Uhry’s saga is the tapestry of the Jewish and African American experiences. “The point is made that they have a lot in common,” Rosato notes. “Both have been ostracized and marginalized in lots of ways. People don’t understand them — people always do that to people they don’t understand, they keep them at a difference. And sometimes it makes their lives pretty awful and miserable.” The action of the play begins in 1948, “right after the war” – which also happens to be the year the State of Israel was born.

Regarding Jews and blacks, Carpenter states: “Those two groups in America have aligned themselves. The whole ’60s — I mean the guys going to the South, those white boys [slain civil rights activists Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman] were Jews. And people were fighting for the same thing — some kind of equality, some kind of just treatment. It’s been a historical connection.”

Rosato describes her co-star as “a really wonderful man, he’s got such a patrician stateliness about him. He’s so dignified looking — he’s got a soft Southern accent, he has that gentility. It’s very appealing, his demeanor. I really loved, responded to it right away. He’s got a very wry smile and of course, he’s a wonderful actor. Doing some of these scenes and watching him go to those very deep places — very, very compelling for me. He’s totally available in that respect; he’s a natural, a really, really good actor. As far as Willie inhabiting the role of Hoke I can see him so clearly as being the exact person Daisy would have to accept into her life. There’s something about him that she can absolutely be with. Boolie didn’t put somebody into her life she couldn’t deal with; he put somebody there she couldn’t say no to.”

In turn, Carpenter, who was interviewed about nine days before Daisy’s premiere, says working with Rosato “is wonderful. We have this wonderful play here, and if I can just pull up my end here…There are four of us; there’s another guy who’s covering me [Mitch Ward, who plays Hoke on February 1, 9 and 17]. And Christian [Lebano] is a wonderful director. This collaborative thing is starting to happen. It’s getting a little” — Carpenter nervously sucks his breath in, then adds, “for me, it’s like, okay, it’s almost go time. As I said, this play is more intimidating than any of the other stuff I’ve done.”

There have been numerous paternalistic productions about race relations in which white characters, not members of the work’s oppressed minority group, are the preeminent protagonists. “Well, that was the reality,” Carpenter ruminates. “Who can get the thing done and move things forward?…it used to bother me that the white character had to come and rescue the black characters.” He cites one example that particularly irritated him — the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning, which made FBI agents appear to be the heroes of the civil rights movement.

Both co-stars feel Driving Miss Daisy “is about equals,” as Rosato points out. “Miss Daisy, no matter how imperious and stuck in her ways, the process of the play puts them on absolutely equal footing. They become not only friends but equals. They are absolutely eyeball to eyeball and heart to heart. There’s no daylight between them; they understand each other and are close.”

Carpenter echoes the sentiment, stating “they sort of get on an equal level. I’m still her driver, but we’ve become friends… For [Hoke], it’s a great job… It was right after the war, there were no jobs… When the play begins I’m 60 years old… I’ve been driving a milk truck throughout World War II… Hoke is not a demeaning character. People have to do what they have to do to make a living. In The Help — who else is offering you a job?” He adds, “The road that we travel, where we start out and end, she tells me I’m her ‘best friend.’ It’s true…”

The arc of this quarter century-long Atlanta-set story includes the civil rights movement. Just as a friendship evolves between Daisy and Hoke, a greater tolerance, amity and improved race relations also transcend the entrenched animosity of a no-longer-segregated South. The rise of African American equality has driven away an apartheid that’s gone with the wind by the time Driving Miss Daisy’s curtain falls. Appropriately, the Sierra Madre Playhouse production is opening during the month of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation — and on the weekend preceding the holiday commemorating another famous Atlantan, Martin Luther King Jr.

Driving Miss Daisy, Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre, CA 91024. Opens Friday. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2:30 pm. Through March 9. Tickets: $25. sierramadreplayhouse.org/Daisy/. 626-355-4318.

*** All Driving Miss Daisy production photos by Maia Madison

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