Alfred Uhry’s contribution to American theater has been to bring southern Jewish life to the stage. The stresses on this community from within and from without form the conflicts in Driving Miss Daisy, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, and Parade. They all focus on issues of self-identity and assimilation as well. In each play, characters try to balance their Jewish heritage and their southern heritage, but sometimes that proves impossible. Although Uhry’s emphasis in these three works is on the southern Jewish community, his theme relates to the question of the role that background and heritage play in anyone’s search for identity.
Driving Miss Daisy
Driving Miss Daisy, a three-person play, shows the slow unfolding of a relationship between Daisy Werthan, a wealthy Jewish widow, and Hoke Coleburn, her African American chauffeur. Boolie Werthen, Daisy’s son, is a minor character. Although the principal focus in the play is on character revelation, the historical change in race relations in the South is also subtly disclosed in the background.
The play does not follow conventional structure but rather progresses in a series of scenes with no break. The events flow from one to another, covering the time from 1948 to 1973. The arc of the relationship between Miss Daisy and Hoke begins with resentment and even hostility on her part and develops into acceptance, respect, and trust. Miss Daisy gradually sees Hoke more as an individual. Much later in the play, she finally acknowledges that Hoke is her best friend.
The issue of prejudice within Daisy herself and in the society beyond is addressed. Although Daisy asserts that she is not prejudiced, she has some stereotypical opinions about blacks and what “they” do. Daisy herself experiences the effects of prejudice when her temple is bombed. This incident is one of the things that helps her to see some common ground with African Americans, for later Daisy buys tickets to a United Jewish Appeal dinner for Martin Luther King, Jr..
The effects of prejudice are also revealed through Hoke’s life. At the beginning of the play, he talks about the difficulty he is experiencing, as an older black man, in finding a job. On a long trip to Mobile, Alabama, the demeaning effects of segregation laws are evident when Hoke and Miss Daisy have an argument about his having to stop on the road in the middle of nowhere to urinate because he could not use the bathroom at the service station. Later, the temple bombing prompts him to speak of having seen a friend’s father lynched when he was a boy.
While Daisy gradually becomes less prejudiced, her son Boolie follows a different route. In his efforts to be accepted as a Jewish businessperson in the southern Christian community, he and his wife gradually become more assimilated to the point, for example, of celebrating Christmas. After successfully becoming part of the business community, Boolie will not go with his mother to the Martin Luther King, Jr., dinner because of what some of his white colleagues might think. He would rather conform than stand out.
Another issue in the play is the difficulty of growing old with dignity. Part of Daisy’s resentment at having a chauffeur is that she must give up some of her independence. She proudly asserts her self-sufficiency. Because of the trust she builds up with Hoke, she gradually accepts her dependence on him. Touchingly, at the end of the play, she allows Hoke to feed...
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