By Mark Kennedy
NEW YORK – James Earl Jones had two questions he needed answered before agreeing to join the Broadway production of “Driving Miss Daisy.”
He called up the director, David Esbjornson.
“I said, ‘OK, am I going to have to dye my hair a little blacker?'”
“Nope,” said the director.
Pleased, Jones asked his second question: “I said, ‘OK. Do I have to lose much weight?’
“Nope,” replied the director again.
And that was that.
“He wanted me,” Jones says, still somewhat surprised.
It’s really not hard to wonder why. Jones, who is joined by Vanessa Redgrave and Boyd Gaines, has helped turn “Driving Miss Daisy” into the top grossing play on Broadway with advance ticket sales of over $4 million.
Backstage at the Golden Theatre, Jones sits on a sofa with playwright Alfred Uhry, who says he had long resisted taking his Pulitzer Prize-winning play to Broadway, never finding the perfect mix of actors. This time, he did.
“I always felt that there’s no point in doing this unless it’s really going to be done as close to perfectly as possible,” says Uhry. “These people are alchemists. They can turn into other people.”
Set in Atlanta against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, “Driving Miss Daisy” centers on an elderly white Jewish widow and her deepening friendship with her African American chauffeur over a quarter of a century.
PHOTO: Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones in the Broadway premiere of Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Driving Miss Daisy,” now in performances at The Golden Theater (252 W. 45th Street).
(AP Photo/The O and M Co., Carol Rosegg)
Two-time Tony Award winner Jones, who turns 80 in January, says he’s always wanted to tackle the play, despite the immense popularity of an Oscar-winning film version starring Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy.
“Seeing how wonderful Morgan Freeman was didn’t deter my desire to do it. That’s the epitome — it is — and I’m so happy that it’s on film so that everybody can see it and most everybody has seen it,” says Jones.
“My feeling is that with great plays — and this is one — there’s an obligation for society to do them every generation. No matter who’s done them before. That’s why we do Shakespeare over and over.”
Uhry, who based the chauffeur character of Hoke Colburn on his grandmother’s own driver, says both Jones and Freeman, who was in his early 40s when he played Hoke, have brought different shadings to the role.
“As good as Morgan was, the part wasn’t written for him,” says Uhry. “The part was pretty much based on an actual person so it’s not Morgan’s part. I asked Morgan a year and a half ago, I said, ‘What do you think?’ He thought a minute, then he said, ‘Jimmy can do it.'”
The new production is helped by the fact that James is originally from Mississippi and knows the dialect. “He gets the music in his ears and in his mouth. And Vanessa is getting more and more Georgia by the day,” says Uhry.
Redgrave, it turns out, is just the latest British-born woman to play Miss Daisy, following Wendy Hiller, who played her in London; Joan Plowright, who played her on TV; and Tandy. There’s one big difference with Redgrave, Uhry says: “She’s a lot more beautiful than my grandmother ever dreamed of being.”
The three actors — Gaines has the smaller of the three roles, playing Miss Daisy’s son — each bring an astonishing amount of theater cred to the stage. Between the three, they have seven Tony Awards, four Emmys and an Oscar.
“You need equal wattage,” says Uhry with a laugh.
The playwright has made few changes to his script to accommodate the new actors. “It was written 25 years ago about things 25 years before that so it was already a period piece. Now it’s a double-period piece.”
Even so, Uhry thinks his gentle and moving story about how an aging Jewish woman grows to trust and love a man of a different religion and color in the bigoted South still has resonance in 2010.
“Sadly, it still is relevant — maybe even more relevant that it was when I wrote it. Even though we have a black president, people are very much right now in this country known for what they are instead of who they are: They’re black; they’re Jews; they’re Muslim; they’re tea party,” Uhry says.
“Those are just labels, and I think that is what I was trying to get at. You’ve got to get under the label and look at the person. That’s necessary today, more than ever I think.”
“Driving Miss Daisy” is one of two works on Broadway right now that look at America’s racial past. The other, the musical “The Scottsboro Boys,” is a more searing examination of prejudice during the Great Depression.
“It was all part of our racial past. It’s a different way of telling the story,” says Uhry. “I think that racial strife is an issue that has always, since the founders of this country, been right at the bottom of the crack and still is.”
Uhry and Jones both are aware that the play and movie were criticized by some as a paternalist fantasy, and that critics objected to watching a Black actor in a subservient role saying “Yas’um” and “No’um” or “I hep you to the doe.'”
“There’s always the danger, I guess, for a Black actor playing Hoke — and maybe there’ll be some white actors playing Hoke — that fellow Black citizens might think it demeaning to do something they associated with ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’ talk,” says Jones.
“They spoke a form of English that they knew from childhood. You’ve got to accept what they knew. Without being defensive, I know men like that. My grandfather was such a man.”
For his part, Uhry says he wrote the language he heard without judgment. “Everything in it is true. I did write the truth. I didn’t make up anything. I suppose that’s why someone like James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave and Boyd Gaines can find their own version of it — because it was the truth,” he says.
“I was lucky. I wrote this play a year after Will Coleman, who was the real Hoke, died. And so I still was able to recapture all that stuff from my childhood. Now hearing it for the last six weeks, I think, ‘My God. How did I remember that?’ I’m so glad that I got it before it’s gone.”
“We are, too,” says Jones.