‘Driving Miss Daisy’ comes to Manship

Hoke is 60 years old when he’s hired as a driver for Miss Daisy.

Johnnie Hobbs was 64 when he auditioned for “Driving Miss Daisy.” He’s just turned 65.

“Today is my birthday,” he says, speaking on his cellphone from West Palm Beach, Fla.

It’s where the Walnut Street Theatre’s “Driving Miss Daisy” tour has stopped on this particular day. It will come to Baton Rouge next week, taking the Manship Theatre stage on Wednesday.

And Hobbs will play the role of Hoke, a character who works 25 years as Miss Daisy’s chauffeur. Yet it seems so unlikely, because when looking at a photo of Hobbs, he looks much younger than Hoke. It doesn’t matter that he’s near Hoke’s age. It doesn’t even matter that he’s now retired from his teaching job at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

He simply seems much too youthful to be Hoke.

Then again, Hoke’s character is already older in spirit. Alfred Uhry developed him that way when writing his play. “Driving Miss Daisy” debuted in the off-Broadway Playwrights Horizons theater in 1987 and moved to Broadway’s John Houseman Theatre later that year.

The play was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1987.

The story is set against the backdrop of the civil rights era. Hoke, a black man, is hired to chauffeur Daisy Werthan, a Jewish southern woman, around town.

Daisy is 12 years older than Hoke and is accident prone. Of course, she’s upset about losing her independence, and she doesn’t like having Hoke in her home.

“There’s so much going on in this story,” Hobbs says. “This is during the civil rights era. The Freedom Rides were happening and the March on Washington.”

Daisy lives the life of privilege, while Hoke is living in the days of Jim Crow.

“Emotionally, Daisy is almost untouchable,” Hobbs says. “ But the artistic director for our production says this is more a love story. It’s about friendship in the end, and that’s a moment a lot of us miss in life.”

Daisy and Hoke discover they have much in common, which whittles the story into its most human element. It’s a story that touches people, something Uhry didn’t realize when first staging it.

“He wrote it as an intimate piece,” Hobbs says. “And he first staged it in an 84-seat theater. He didn’t expect it to have the effect that it did.”

“Driving Miss Daisy” continues to touch its audiences. Hobbs has witnessed this since hitting the road with the tour on Jan. 14.

A friend at the Walnut Street Theatre asked him to audition for the part. He’d just retired from the university, so why not?

“The timing was perfect,” Hobbs says. “This is the first time I’ve been on a tour. I don’t have time to unpack my suitcase, but I’ve found that I have more time to relax on tour than at home. At home, I would be working around the house. Here, I don’t have that, so I have more time to prepare.”

The Manship Theatre performance will mark Hobbs’ first visit to Baton Rouge. Actually, it will be his first Louisiana visit.

“I’ve heard about Louisiana’s food and music all my life, but I’ve never experienced it,” he says. “And I am going to eat some gumbo when I get there.”

The road has been fun so far. Hobbs enjoys acting, and he hasn’t had time to miss teaching.

“We’ve been able to do some master classes on this tour,” he says. “I really enjoy inspiring students, and it’s something that I want to continue doing when I get the chance.”

And this tour has dispelled any doubts as to just how much his teaching inspired his students. Former students have greeted him at every tour stop.

“They’re all over the country,” Hobbs says. “There are some I haven’t seen in a long time and some that have recently graduated. It’s been great.”

Now, getting back to that age thing. Hobbs definitely will be undergoing a transformation when he steps into the character of Hoke. Hoke’s life is different. He’s been through things that have made his spirit older.

Though Hobbs’ spirit is younger, he’s a professional. And when he steps on stage, he’ll be one with Hoke.