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Alfred Uhry On ... Revisiting Miss Daisy

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Alfred Uhry is a playwright and screenwriter whose 1987 play, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Driving Miss Daisy, is currently being revived in the West End starring Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones.

Uhry won an Oscar for his 1989 film adaptation of Driving Miss Daisy, which starred Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. His other stage writing credits include The Last Night of Ballyhoo and the libretto for Parade, both of which won Tony Awards.

This new revival of Driving Miss Daisy is directed by David Esbjornson and ran at Broadway’s Golden Theatre from 25 October 2010 to 9 April 2011, earning Redgrave a Best Actress nomination at this year’s Tony Awards. It runs at Wyndham’s Theatre from 5 October to 17 December 2011 (previews from 26 September).

It’s interesting to see Driving Miss Daisy done now because times have changed. When the play was written and performed originally people on both sides of the Atlantic knew about the civil rights movement because they had lived through it.

But now it’s history and many of the audience who see it will know who Martin Luther King is but they might not know exactly what the period represented. So it’s the same play but it’s mounted slightly differently, with clear visual reference to King so the audience can more easily acclimatise themselves to what’s going on.

But I wouldn’t want it to seem overly educative in purpose. I just want people to get their money’s worth and get a glimpse into lives that were going on in that period. The play is really about my family – my grandmother and her driver, and my childhood in Atlanta. It’s all based on truth.

It’s still astounding to me that it became such a hit. I had no idea when I was writing this little three-character play that anybody outside the realm of Atlanta would appreciate it. But I’ve learned in the intervening years that everybody had a grandmother, everybody had a relationship with their mother, and everybody, even if they didn’t have a driver, had a relationship in their life that was somewhat similar. Miss Daisy seems to have worked her way into the lexicon somehow, and that’s something you certainly can’t buy.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to have some real greats playing the parts over the years. I’ve certainly had the cream of the British acting crop, with Jessica Tandy playing Miss Daisy in the film, Joan Plowright on television, Wendy Hiller in the original West End production, and now Vanessa. And there are no better actors that I know of than Morgan Freeman and James Earl Jones – they’re both completely different in the part but both valid in their interpretations.

It saddens me that even with a black President of the United States there is still a lot of prejudice against Blacks, and against Jews, against everybody. Unfortunately I think it’s part of the human condition – we’re all prejudiced one way or another. But the thing I tried to do in the play was to write about three people who weren’t politicians, they weren’t orators, they weren’t trying to change the world. They just, in their own small way, got better.

Driving Miss Daisy runs at Wyndham's Theatre until 17 December 2011 (previews from 26 September).

- Alfred Uhry was speaking to Theo Bosanquet


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