"Driving Miss Daisy"
When? Saturday, Aug. 29, at 7:30 p.m.
Where? GSU Performing Arts Center, 847 Plant Drive
How much? $24 for patrons, $12 for youth, $10 for students of Georgia Southern University
PAC director Carol Thompson would like to invite the audience to remain after the show to enjoy a catered reception, where they can enjoy wine, light hors d'oeuvres and a chance to mingle with the cast and crew of "Daisy."
As director of the Performing Arts Center at Georgia Southern University, Carol Thompson is well known for introducing each of the PAC's performances, taking the stage in a fancy gown for a few moments before the curtain rises.
But for the last show under her charge as the PAC's director, Thompson will not introduce the show live. She'll be behind the curtain, getting ready to resume the role she is best known for in the Statesboro arts scene: Daisy Werthan, in "Driving Miss Daisy." As always, she will perform alongside Mical Whitaker, as Hoke, her driver, and Alan Tyson, as Boolie, her son.
The one performance is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 29 at 7:30 p.m. under the direction, again, of Gary Dartt, a retired theater professor from Georgia Southern.
"Driving Miss Daisy" tells the story of headstrong, cantankerous Daisy Werthan, whose son, Boolie, forces her to give up driving shortly after she reaches the age of 72. He hires Hoke Colburn, a middle-aged black man, to be Daisy's driver. The two clash immediately, but as the story progresses through the years between the 1940s to 1970s, a close friendship develops between the characters.
The show first ran in 2009 at the Averitt Center for the Arts, where it promptly sold out every
performance of its three-night run. Capitalizing on its success and the public demand to see the show revived, the Averitt Center staged "Daisy" again the following year. It sold out once more, making it one of the most popular shows ever to run in the Statesboro theater scene.
"Daisy" has enjoyed several other, smaller stagings, including a performance at East Georgia College for the Swainsboro Arts Council in March and short scenes for various events throughout the years. The PAC performance, however, will be particularly special: Thompson included the show in this year's season as the "swan song" of her career and as a retirement gift — not to herself, but to the audience she has entertained for the last 10 years.
A life in the arts
Thompson's husband, Dale, worked with Union Camp Corporation, a paper company based out of Sumter, South Carolina. For his job, the Thompsons would move every few years to small towns in the deep South. Many had small, struggling arts scenes or no arts scene at all.
"It kind of became my determination whenever we moved to a new community to — if they didn't have a community theater or an arts center — to get one started. To grow art in that community," Thompson said.
Then, in 1986, she and her husband moved to Statesboro, which at that time had virtually no theater community beyond Georgia Southern's performing arts department.
Thompson would soon take a role in building that community, starting in what would become the University Advancement Office and transitioning to the director of Campus Life Enrichment, where she brought in speakers such as Maya Angelou and Ben and Jerry (of ice cream fame) to talk to students. She was part of the push for a new performing arts venue, which materialized when the Performing Arts Center broke ground in the early 2000s.
In 2002, she became the PAC's box office manager, was promoted to assistant director in 2005 and became director in 2011. She has been with the PAC, literally, from the ground up, since the day they put the shovel in the ground.
"I wanted to see it succeed," Thompson said of her years of work with the PAC. "I felt like I'd birthed it."
During that time, she also served as the president of the Statesboro Arts Council, which operated the Averitt Center for the Arts, served on the council's board of directors and appeared in several local productions.
Thompson is stepping back from many of her leadership roles, but that does not mean she is pulling away from the theater scene. After "Daisy," Thompson will perform in the Averitt Center's production of "Calendar Girls" — also directed by Dartt — in November, and she hopes to continue volunteering with Statesboro's theaters. Much of her involvement from here, however, will be from a seat in the audience.
While she expects to stay involved in the arts scene, Thompson did say she would miss her role as director, and she has had a few emotional moments. Last week, she met with a film crew to record her introduction to "Daisy," which will play before the curtain rises. She got halfway through the first take before she began to cry.
"I started to say, 'I'm retiring from Georgia Southern,' and like a hammer in the head, it hit me," she said. "I mean, tears were rolling down my face. … It did surprise me. And I think that's what I have ahead of me to face. I think I'm going to be surprised at certain things. I love what I do. I'm passionate about the arts — I guess because I've done them my whole life."
The magic of "Daisy"
Thompson chose "Daisy" as her swan song performance because of its popularity in the Statesboro arts scene, but she also chose it because she has a deep affinity for the play. She has worked with Whitaker, who plays Hoke, and Tyson, who plays Boolie — along with Dartt, who has directed all three incarnations of the show — for six years, refining their parts, developing chemistry and building relationships, both on and off the stage.
"The show is all about the characters and their relationships, and I feel like the fact that we've been doing this for so long contributes to the relationship you see on stage, not only as actors but as characters in the play," Tyson said.
Tyson has worked in the Statesboro arts scene since the early '90s, when he played Fezziwig in "A Christmas Carol," which Whitaker directed. He has appeared in many other local productions, but he very nearly missed the chance to be in the PAC performance of "Daisy," thanks to an automobile accident back in June, which fractured two vertebrae in his neck. As the show date came closer, Dartt and the cast members anxiously considered recasting the part. To everyone's relief, Tyson recovered in time to launch into rehearsals. Tyson himself said he would have felt "not good" if he had needed to sit "Daisy" out.
"Not from the standpoint that the show would have gone on without me — I'm certainly not the only person in this town who could play Boolie onstage," Tyson said. "But we've come so far together, it would have been so disappointing not to be able to perform this show at the PAC."
Certainly, said director Dartt, the particular chemistry between these three actors gives "Daisy" some of its staying power in the local community. All three are "powerful, very good actors" in their own right — Thompson and Tyson have well-earned local reputations, and Whitaker is memorialized in the Georgia Theatre Hall of Fame — but when the three of them come together, they create something magical.
"I think it's the skill and talent of the people staging it," Dartt said, whose years teaching theater in New York have given him a keen eye for spotting skill. "If you ask me, if you can get Alan and Mical Whitaker and Carol Thompson on the same stage at the same time, it's going to be a big deal."
While Saturday's performance is the only one firmly scheduled for the show's future, Dartt and the cast are hopeful that this will not be its last hurrah. There has been talk at the Averitt Center of taking the show on the road, and when they performed the show at the recent Georgia Performer's Conference, Dartt said several of the attendees seemed interested in bringing "Daisy" to their theaters for the 2016–17 season.
That, however, is in the far future. And even if nothing comes of it, the show has already made a lasting impact — both on Statesboro's theatergoers and the show's cast.
"It's just been the journey of a lifetime," Thompson said. "It really has. I don't think Daisy will ever leave me."
Brittani Howell can be reached at (912) 489-9405.