Fort Worth — If you were a white Texas child of the 1950s or early 1960s, you would, inevitably, have come face-to-face with one of the strange, sad realities of the old, segregated South: a pair of drinking fountains in a department store or a supermarket, one marked “White” and the other marked “Colored.”
And even if you’d been brought up in a house that called black people “Negroes” (best) or “colored” (not as polite)—but never the N-word—and even if you’d been told at home or at school that segregation was morally evil, a question would form in your young head as you stood there:
Do “they” know something I don’t? Are colored people dirty? If I drank from that other fountain, would it make me sick?
And no matter if you knew the answer to all those questions was “no.” No matter if you felt ashamed at even having the thought. In this way and so many others, in the most innocent of hearts, racism left its mark on our lives.
Sheran Goodspeed Keyton’s newest play Driving Miss Sadie opens the season for DVA Productions Inc. at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, and its story reaches into that same sensitive territory—still a living memory for some of the audience—to show us the kind of “brought up in it” racial bias so visceral that the touch of a black hand can make a white character shudder and pull back. It might seem like a small thing, but it wasn’t—and it’s an aspect of racism’s history that is seldom brought out into the light.
This play isn’t a riff on Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy—there’s a car, and a white college kid driving an elderly black woman, but that’s all the two shows have in common. The setting is Alabama in 1959. Miss Sadie O’Brian (Shayla Watson), daughter of a white planter and his young black house servant, owns a mansion outside Tuscaloosa, but pretends to the world she’s the housemaid. That, she says, is the only way she’s been able to keep her property and stay safe all these years. A middle-aged black man, Big John (F. Carl Brown), works around the place, but may have a story we don’t know.
Into their lives comes college student William (Tyler Cochran), a white kid sent by his professor to apply for a job as chauffeur. William is such a racist it takes several minutes of stage time to convince him the African-American woman he’s staring at is the wealthy “Miss O’Brian” he’s looking for. He orders Big John around, and insists on having a “brand new” tea cup, because he couldn’t possibly “contaminate” himself by drinking from a cup (however well washed) that’s been used by anyone with a black skin.
Of course, the premise is pretty out there. In 1959, any boy this bred-in-the-bone prejudiced would have gone straight back to town—and called the KKK to take care of the professor who sent him to “Miss Sadie’s” in the first place.
Both Watson and Brown have the advantage of playing wise, sensible folk, and though the roles are sketched out in broad terms, they do a decent job with them. In fact, we’d rather hear more stories from them, and less from Cochran’s William, a character whose story arc runs in an annoyingly circular pattern. One minute he acts like he’s learned something about how “we’re all the same.” A minute later he’s a quivering gel because a “used” blanket has been draped over his all-too-white shoulders as he slept. Oh, the cooties! This on-again, off-again racist groove plays out over and over again.
The play doesn’t seem sure of its goal with William: should we expect his views to change, however slowly, as he’s mentored by Miss Sadie and Big John? He’s still seems a conflicted mess toward the end, alternately hugging and drawing back. That boy ain’t quite right, in too many ways to count. Cochran gives it a good try, but the character is muddled and erratic—and a slightly surreal ending leaves us wondering if we were fools to expect people (or the world) to change at all. Was that really the intended message, or have we been left confused?
There are some lively song numbers tucked into this alternatingly comic/dramatic plot, with Jock Lewis playing an excellent piano in the background—mostly making the point that white and black Southerners shared plenty of roots, especially in their music. Watson has the strongest voice, and all three actors get to bust a move or two, though some of William’s are “white boy” cringe-worthy (on purpose, we hope).
Driving Miss Sadie is a play that’s hard to assess. There are flashes of good stuff here and there, and a hyper-awareness of the emotional and physical details of racism that could be something to build on, but the script needs to decide where it wants to go with all this.