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February 4th, 2011

Driving Miss Daisy

Despite dire predictions of a winter storm and plummeting temperatures, on Monday night we consulted the evidence of our own senses, put on our stickiest boots and fuzziest coats, and marched (carefully) up 97th Street to take the subway to see Driving Miss Daisy.

I'd really agitated to see it, the play a Pulitzer Prize winner of its day and all, and (unlike A Free Man of Color or The Scottsboro Boys) popular enough to have its run extended into April.  Also, it stars Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, two actors I would gladly pay to watch reading the telephone book, much less a famous play that had been made into a 1989 movie (which I think I saw, but don't remember much about) starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman.  On the whole, I'm glad I did.  The production was professional and imaginative, the acting wonderful, the audience warm and appreciative.  It's just too bad that Driving Miss Daisy is, well, kind of a thin and simplistic play about a very rich and complex subject--prejudice and racism in the American South.

The argument of this play (I won't call it a plot, because it isn't one, not exactly) is this:  Boolie Werthan, a middle-aged Jewish business man in Atlanta, GA foists an out-of-work chauffer called Hoak Coleburn  on his 72 year old mother after she wrecks her car and the neighbor's garage. Fiercely independent, unthinkingly prejudiced, extremely self-willed, extremely anxious, she gradually lets Hoak into her life, growing dependent on his kindness and help, teaching him how to read as he teaches her, well, what?  Not to think through her prejudices--she treats him like a servant throughout the play, even as he drives her to a dinner honoring Dr. Martin Luther King.  And not to look outside her own narrow life or to become less relentlessly self-centered.  It's clear by the end of the play that she likes Hoak better than she likes her own son, but then Hoak takes care of her more consistently and a lot more sensitively than her son does.  "You're my best friend," she tells Hoak in the climactic scene of the play.  Which is sweet, but demonstrably one-sided and arguably self-serving.  As Ben Brantley put it in his New York Times review,  "Mr. Uhry allows audiences to feel both patronizing toward, and admiring of, its geriatric odd couple. This combination of sentiments tends to make people glow with a pleasant righteousness, especially when the implicit subject is crossing a racial divide."

Which leaves us with watching James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave injecting this rather thin text with theatrical life.  For the most part, they succeed.  Vanessa Redgrave, as always, plays Vanessa Redgrave playing a role, but she does it with a panache that would make Cyrano gnash his teeth with envy.  Her Miss Daisy is more New England school marm than any kind of Southern woman I'm familiar with (and I'm related to a good few Southern women)--brisk, acid, oddly confrontational.  And yet she still makes it clear that a good portion of Miss Daisy's occasional meanness grows out of her fear of losing her autonomy.  Sometimes she stretches the text to breaking point; sometimes, she plays against it.  It makes mice feet of some of the Uhry's more sentimental set pieces (not that I'm complaining, mind), and it doesn't always make a lot of sense to what the play is trying to say, but it sure is riveting to watch.

James Earl Jones, on the other hand, belongs to the chameleon rather than the peacock school of acting.  He is Hoak--body-language, accents, facial expressions, everything.  He shows us Hoak's desperation and fury as an aging black man in a white man's world as well as his genuine kindness and compassion for an old woman raging against the dying of the light.  I can believe that his Hoak loves Miss Daisy like family--out of knowledge of her strengths and vulnerabilities, her faults and her virtues, out of duty and necessity and even his own loneliness and need to be needed.  And that's a real feat, given the two-dimensional nature of the character as written.

I want to say a word about Boyd Gaines, too, whose Boolie serves as Miss Daisy and Hoak's line to the outside world.  He's the only character who lives in a larger community, who has to negotiate the complex world of business and politics and family.  I absolutely believed in Boolie, irritating and bonhomous, sometimes incredibly dense and sometimes remarkably insightful.  Which means that Boyd Gaines is  probably a chameleon, too, and a very good one.  If he's not as drop-dead charismatic as Jones or Redgrave--well, there wouldn't have been room for the three of on the stage.

The run's been extended through April.  If you like period pieces or wonderful performances--and your blood pressure can stand the play's simplistic liberalism--it's well worth seeing.  Neither Jones nor Redgrave will be treading the boards forever.


Time Travel Query

Anybody got a working time machine?  Because I could use to re-run the last two weeks, or at the very least, go back to 1996 and document some of my research more precisely.

But that's not what I really wanted to ask you.

As you may know, Bob, my time-travel/slavery/coming of age novel The Freedom Maze is coming out this November, just (we hope) in time for World Fantasy.  In Big Mouth House's admirable Author Questionnaire is a request for a list of comparable books.  Between my terrible memory and my penchant for books published 40 or more years ago, I have come up dry as a saltpan.  Can anybody out there help me?

Here's my potted/patented description:

Set against the burgeoning Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and then just before the outbreak of the Civil War, FREEDOM MAZE explores both political and personal liberation, and how the two intertwine.  Sophie, a lonely white girl in 1960’s Louisiana, loves to read.  When she meets a magical creature in her great-aunt’s maze, she hopes for a fantasy book adventure with herself as the heroine.  Instead, she gets a real adventure in the race-haunted world of her family’s Louisiana sugar plantation in 1860, where she is mistaken for a slave.

Anything out there that might help the marketing folks sell Many Copies to B&N?

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