Marty Clear

'Driving Miss Daisy' opens in Sarasota

Kraig Swartz and Carolyn Michel star in Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe's production of "Driving Miss Daisy." PHOTO PROVIDED Photos by Don Daly Photo
Kraig Swartz and Carolyn Michel star in Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe's production of "Driving Miss Daisy." PHOTO PROVIDED Photos by Don Daly Photo

For a long time, Howard Millman said, he had wanted to direct a production of "Driving Miss Daisy" with Sarasota actor Carolyn Michel in the title role.

Then in 2014, Millman directed "The Whipping Man" for Sarasota's Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. Among the cast members was Taurean Blacque, who's best known for his role as Neal Washington in "Hill Street Blues."

"After I worked with Taurean, I said 'There's my show,'" Millman said.

Blacque, who's now based in Atlanta and concentrates on theater work, eagerly accepted.

"It's great to be working with Howard Millman again," he said. "And also to be working with Carolyn Michel, that's just great. We had lunch together last time I was here, but we've never worked together."

The Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe production opened Saturday and runs through May 28. Tickets have been going fast, and three shows were added to the run even before opening night.

Besides the chance to work together, the play itself appealed to Millman, Michel and Blacque. "Driving Miss Daisy" won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1988 during its Off-Broadway run, and went on to become a hit movie. Morgan Freeman played Toke, the chauffeur, in both the Off-Broadway show and the film.

"It made Morgan Freeman's career," Millman said.

The story has to do with an aging Southern woman, played by Michel, who can't drive anymore. She reluctantly hires a chauffeur, Blacque, and they begin a 25-year journey into a deep friendship that borders on romance.

The races of the two main characters -- Daisy is white, Hoke, the driver, is black -- is essential to the plot and to the hostility that Daisy initially feels toward Hoke. But it's not a play about race.

"They're both products of their time," Michel said. "It starts in 1948, just after World War II. But it's not about racial issues. It's a very subtly woven piece about two people who, in another time, probably would have ended up being married."

Daisy, who has lived her life in Atlanta in the 19th and 20th centuries, has her prejudices, but they're more apparent to the audience than to Daisy herself.

"She says she's not prejudiced," Millman said. "In her mind, she's not prejudiced."

The play weaves through a quarter-century, and Hoke is about 40 as the action starts. So both characters have to grow old in front of the audience's eyes.

"There's no makeup or anything," Blacque said. "I just do some things with my voice and the way I hold my body. My hair's already gray."

Blacque will turn 76 during the run of the show, so the challenge might actually be seeming young enough for Hoke in the early part of the play, and younger than Michel, who is actually considerably younger than Blacque.

Now that he's into his second show at WBTT, Blacque said he's even more impressed.

"It's one of the best companies, it truly is," he said. "I was so happy to get the call to come back. And if they call me again, I'll come down on the next plane out."

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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