Springfield Contemporary Theatre presents Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer-winning play "Driving Miss Daisy", through December 3 at SCT Center Stage in Wilhoit Plaza. Local favorite Julie Bloodworth plays Daisy Werthan, a widowed, 72-year-old Jewish woman living in Atlanta in the late 1940s (a character based on Uhry’s grandmother). Her son deems her too old to drive and hires 60-year-old Hoke Colburn, an African American man, to serve as her chauffeur.
Playing Hoke is veteran actor/director Erik Kilpatrick, and directing the production is another veteran actor/director, MSU Theatre and Dance alum Jack Laufer. Both are thoroughgoing professionals, and each has a resume a mile long.
Born in St. Louis, Erik Kilpatrick is the son of well-known actor Lincoln Kilpatrick, who died in 2004. Like his father, Erik has had a career encompassing television, films and the stage. He got his break in 1978 playing Curtis “C.J.” Jackson, one of the high-school basketball players coached by Ken Howard’s character in the CBS-TV drama The White Shadow. Kilpatrick remained with the show through the end of the 1979-80 season (it continued on until 1981, but with the first two years available on DVD, Kirkpatrick’s character is preserved on home video.)
“I’m a second-generation actor. I went to Los Angeles not looking for work, but just to be in the sunshine!” laughs Kirkpatrick. “I was blessed and lucky to have stumbled across that role, at that particular time. We had a lot of fun as kids. I wasn’t supposed to be in the series—I was just kind of like a guest star in the first pilot. And Jackie Cooper, who was the director, liked me so much he just kept me on. And I ended up doing the first episode—it was all about me.” White Shadow had tremendous talent behind the scenes in addition to Jackie Cooper: Bruce Paltrow (Gwyneth’s father) created the show as well as writing and directing some episodes; Stephen Bochco was on the writing staff as well. Kirtpatrick says Bruce Paltrow in particular nurtured the young actors on the show who had interest in directing; and Jackie Cooper, who started in show business in the early 1930s in the “Our Gang/Little Rascals” comedies, mentored the cast as well. “It was like a training school.” More recently Kirkpatrick says he’s been mostly directing theater, “and trying to create my own theater company.” He’s also taught at New York’s NEC (Negro Ensemble Company), a theater company and training institution. “A lot of my students there are doing work all over, so I get a joy in passing on what I’ve learned.”
As for Jack Laufer, he says “lately I did recur on a Showtime series called Masters of Sex, which was about Masters and Johnson, and which took place in St. Louis about six blocks from where I grew up, right at Wash U (Washington University). And I was the go-to guy for St. Louis information. They’d always come to me and say, ‘What happened here? What happened there?’” Laufer was sort of the St. Louis consultant for the show... “unpaid,” he jokes. “It was lots of fun, and we ended it last year. Since then, a few guest-star (appearances) here and there, and whatever comes along to pay the bills!” As for theater directing, Laufer is a member of the not-for-profit Blank Theatre Company in Los Angeles, and directs there “fairly often,” he says.
And that brings us to SCT’s production of Driving Miss Daisy, a funny, moving and ultimately hopeful meditation on race relations in mid-20th-century America. It depicts the complex relationship between Daisy, a venerable Southern woman (who happens to be Jewish) who values her independence and resists having to have a chauffeur drive her around, and Hoke, the black man her son Boolie hires for the job. Says Jack Laufer, “It’s a beautiful story. It’s a love story. It’s the story of how they bond—and how they UN-bond at some points! It’s very funny, very touching, and it touches on a lot of social issues: race relations, absolutely; anti-Semitism, absolutely. Also, mother-and-son relationships.”
Many people will be familiar with the film version that starred Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman, and Dan Aykroyd. Erik Kilpatrick, who plays the Freeman role of Hoke, feels “the play serves better than the film because you get more information, and you get more of a sensitivity between two characters as they grow and develop—especially in these times that we’re living now. You see how, through time, they have changed from the time that they meet in the play, to the time when the play is nearly over. She’s dealing as a Jewish woman, he’s dealing as an African American, and how those times changed. Martin Luther King is introduced in the play. And it’s really remarkable.” The play takes Daisy and Hoke from the late 1940s into the mid 1970s.
Erik Kilpatrick describes Hoke Colburn as “a man in need of a job. Speaking personally, I remember as a kid watching my great-grandmother, she was a domestic worker. And they were good jobs—and it was an easy job. I think the main thing is, Hoke comes into this woman’s life—neither of them knows each other. Neither of them want to be there. But they serve a purpose to each other. He has a great line: ‘You need a chauffeur—I need a job!’” Daisy is a retired schoolteacher, and she teaches Hoke how to read. “He didn’t know how to read—he’s a ‘self-made man’. He used to look at the newspaper, ‘reading’ the pictures to figure out what’s going on in the world. He didn’t really have a formal education. But by the end of the play you understand that he has a granddaughter who is now teaching at a university.”
Adds Jack Laufer, “this man (Hoke) was the backbone of Jim Crow South. And these kinds of men were the fathers of the Andrew Youngs and the Shirley Chisholms and the Barbara Jordans. And they worked hard to get their kids where they were.”
Compared to the film version, says Laufer, “the play is quite simplified. The staging is quite simple. There’s no car, there are just chairs and a bench to symbolize a car. So it’s all about the relationships.”
Talking about his co-star Julie Bloodworth, Erik Kilpatrick says “She IS Miss Daisy. And we just get along so well. It’s almost like she’s Miss Daisy and I’m Hoke!” “And Pete Nielsen is wonderful as the son (Boolie),” says Laufer. “I am very blessed with this cast.”
Performances of Driving Miss Daisy at SCT Center Stage are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm Nov.17-Dec.3rd. For ticket information call 831-8001 or visit www.springfieldcontemporarytheatre.org.