VISTA — When veteran actors Sandra Ellis Troy and Antonio “T.J.” Johnson performed a public reading of the play “Driving Miss Daisy” before a full Avo Stagehouse last May, they could tell they had something special on their hands. The mid-century tale of the growing friendship between an elderly Jewish woman and her black chauffeur completely won over the audience, including actor and director Dana Case, who suggested the actors do a full production.
Two months later, Case was invited to direct that production. “I was pleasantly surprised and said I’d love to,” she recalled.
Race relations are at the heart of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Troy, who plays Daisy, said the timing could not be more appropriate. The Nov. 4 rehearsal was interrupted by the announcement that Barack Obama had won the election. Wet eyes were the rule at the stagehouse as they continued with the practice.
“The next scene was about a black man being hung with flies all around him,” Johnson, who plays Daisy’s driver Hoke, said. “I never thought we’d get to this day from that day … To be able to perform this role at this important time in history, I really feel I’m a blessed actor.”
“The great thing is that T.J. and Sandy have known each other for years and they are both really open to dialogue, so we can talk about racism really openly and it’s not taboo,” Case said. “I think being able to just tackle it up front and talk about it makes it so they are able to play the characters with a real depth.”
The third pillar of the play’s cast is Daisy’s son, Boolie, played by Howard Bickle. He hires Hoke to drive for Daisy after she nearly kills herself in a car accident.
“It’s interesting because Boolie is often played as the comic relief character,” Case said. “When Howard came in, he didn’t do that it at all. He played it really sincerely. He was the only one who came in without that wink.”
“It’s all about unconditional love for his mother,” Bickle said. “You don’t get to do that in shows a lot. There’s always some drama where you get to a selfish point for your character, and that’s really not the case in this show. It makes me feel really good to play a good person.”
Troy said the stage version will be far richer than their reading performance. While the actors effectively expressed the touching moments and the growth of the relationship between Daisy and Hoke, Troy felt there wasn’t time for the actors to understand and convey the historical context in which the characters lived. Once the full production was announced, she fact-checked every element of the play from the part of town Daisy was from to the whole range of prejudices she would have been intimately familiar with.
“When you have this longer rehearsal period, it’s almost as if the piece becomes something beyond the printed page and becomes flesh and blood,” Troy said. “You start to face up to the real time and place of these characters.”
“It really is a very simple way of looking at our journey as a country,” Johnson said. “I think it’s going to be so much fun. It’s not a long play. It hits what it needs to hit. You get those emotions and then we let you go.”
“Driving Miss Daisy” plays at the Avo from Nov. 13 through Nov. 30. Tickets are available for purchase at www.vistix.com or via the Vista ticket office at (760) 724-2110.