Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild actors are taking a step back into time with the guild’s latest production, “Driving Miss Daisy.”
The show tackles fairly heavy themes of discrimination, friendship, job security and more. Those ideas set the stage for the United States in the mid-1900s, which is when the show takes place.
Mark Ware, who is playing Hoke Colburn, Miss Daisy’s driver, said this three-character play embodies everything it meant to be a woman, a black man or an elderly person in the South.
“We show an American culture that was so different and yet so intertwined,” Ware said. “We play roles that were indicative of society — how far the South came through that period and how far we came as individuals through that period in the play is very striking to me.”
CVTG’s “Driving Miss Daisy” opens Thursday and runs through Sunday, March 18, at The Grand Theatre, 102 W. Grand Ave.
Performance times are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 1:30 p.m. Sundays.
The show spans nearly three decades, starting in 1948 and ending in 1973.
A lot happened during that period of time, and Ware said the script is not shy about diving into some of the serious issues the country was facing.
From the first scene, Hoke is discussing financial stress, racism and socioeconomic status with Miss Daisy’s son Boolie, played by John Conklin.
“Some of the things we discuss in that very first scene together really hits home to how our culture was back in the 1940s, about the roles that black folks had in the South and jobs they had,” Ware said. “To work for somebody that had status was a really important thing for an older black man with no job.”
Throughout the play, Bartella said the show addresses discrimination as it is perceived from various sides, not only in regards to race but also to age, sex and religion.
He added another neat thing about the show is watching how the characters progress in relation to one another.
“Everybody experiences discrimination in one form or another,” he said. “People ... either come to realize everybody is human just like them, realize that ‘yes, it can happen to me, it’s not just happening to other people,’ or they may realize, though they aren’t going to discriminate against anybody, they aren’t going to do anything to make it better, either.”
Because it is such a small cast, Bartella said audience members will feel as though they are journeying right alongside Miss Daisy, Hoke and Boolie.
He expects people will develop a connection with the characters.
Through the passage of time, the audience will notice changing styles, music and set pieces. But he hopes they notice something else: A change in mindset — in the characters, but maybe also in themselves.
“Everybody in the audience might have gone through similar trials in their lives, even though this is a different time,” Bartella said. “You can recognize yourself in every person on the stage at one point or another.”
The show is also extremely honest, which is what assistant director James Stewart enjoys most about it.
He can remember experiencing some of the events that happen in the latter half of the show, and said the characters’ responses to those events resonated with him.
“For the period I grew up in, I was aware of a lot of these types of things,” Stewart said. “That honesty of the show keeps it pure — it’s not trying to cover anything up.”
But it does provide a solution to issues of discrimination, Ware said, and a simple one at that. The key to breaking down barriers, stigmas and preconceived notions about others is interaction, especially with those who are different from you in some way.
“When we start sharing the same space and having to talk to each other, we have to learn how to understand each other,” Ware said. “Learning to understand each other is how we grow as friends.”
The play shows how important this concept was in the mid-1900s, but Stewart said those themes are just as important, if not more, for people to understand today.
With the national conversation on race perhaps as heated as it was during the time period of this show, Stewart said audiences can learn a lot of still-relevant information.
“What keeps you from building relationshps is continued separation, never dealing with each other,” he said. “If you look at that today, that’s still where the problems stem from.”
More than race and discrimination, Ware thinks another theme “Driving Miss Daisy” highlights is the value of friendship, especially one that has withstood the test of time.
“It’s dealing with the friendship of three people in a long span of time,” Ware said. “That’s becoming less apparent nowadays. Friendships seem to be throwaway friendships.”
He still thinks those long-lasting friendships are important, and through this show he has found that in the friendships he has made with his cast members, especially Jeanne Kussrow-Larson, who plays Miss Daisy.
But this isn’t his first time driving her around the block. The two played the same characters in the Barron Spotlighters production of the show in August 2017.
Ware hasn’t done much acting, but working with Kussrow-Larson twice has led to a lasting frinedship in his real life as well.
“That’s what I’ve found is friends I can relate to and am glad to be around, which is rare and hard to find,” he said. “If that shows throughout us doing this play together, that’s another important message.”
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