Orlando actor takes the wheel in ‘Driving Miss Daisy,’ steers conversation on race in the arts

Michael Morman’s performance carries a message of respect, equality beyond the stage

Michael Morman played Hoke Colburn for the seventh time in Theater West End's production of "Driving Miss Daisy". (Theater West End (Facebook) )

SANFORD, Fla. – No one drives Miss Daisy quite like Michael Morman. He’s reprised the role of Hoke Colburn in “Driving Miss Daisy” seven times, most recently in the Theater West End production, which just finished its run in Sanford.

The Orlando-based actor has collected many credits over the years, in “Evita,” “Annie” and “Little Women,” to name a few, but he’s grown up with Daisy’s 60-year-old driver, having first played the role while in his 30s.

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For Morman, the creative wheels kept turning, almost as fast as the one that drove Miss Daisy’s car. With each subsequent production, he evolved his performance, understanding the meaning of Colburn’s words and actions more fully with age.

The similarities between Morman and the character he played kept steering him back to the role.

“I’m a loner, I’m relatively soft spoken, my morals and pride in who I am is something that Hoke is,” he said. “Of every role my entire working career, most of the times I’ve been the only one. So, in this play, I am the only image of Black or African American. So, that’s another thing that I can relate to.”

Morman said he wants to do his best for all audiences, but also feels the weight that comes with being the only Black performer on stage. Through his performances, he is representing the Black community.

“When I have African Americans in the audience, I’m trying to make sure that they’re hearing what I’m saying and not looking at it as demeaning because again it was (set) back in the early 1960s. So I don’t want (Hoke) to come across as someone who’s very submissive because he’s a man just doing his job. So, there’s that pressure to make sure they’re getting that message. And when it’s an entirely white audience, it’s doing the same thing,” Morman said.

"He's fascinating to me. There's a lot of him that's Michael," said Morman, of why he's returned to the role of Colburn for the seventh time in his working career.

With the onslaught of the global coronavirus pandemic, Morman noticed the doors open a little wider.

He saw people experiencing this universal introspection, one that brought racial and mental health stigmas to the forefront of conversations. It was a mass reckoning that inspired movements in the streets—and in the arts.

“We’ve changed quite a few things because of what’s happening now,” Morman said.

In “Driving Miss Daisy,” one scene stands out to him.

Colburn is driving and having a discussion with Daisy Werthan, the titular character. She says, “Things are changing.”

Colburn’s response is the same, but the way Morman delivers it isn’t.

“Before it was a throwaway thing. Now we’ve made it a point in the play,” Morman said. “I stand outside of the car, and I go, ‘Things are changing. All right, things haven’t changed that much.’ Because they haven’t. And it’s apropos to today.”

Messages like Colburn’s transcend the stage. Like for Morman, when he found art imitating life at a forum for racial equity in Central Florida’s entertainment sector.

The Central Florida Entertainment Advocacy group, founded and led by Meka King in the wake of last summer’s Black Lives Matter movement, hosted the discussion for Black professionals in the industry as well as for allies wanting to gain a deeper understanding of the issues—and the actionable steps it takes to resolve them.

“We exposed our stories and people were shocked. I was not shocked,” King said. “We know that these things happen. I know firsthand being a Black woman in the entertainment industry, a lot of the things that people think are horrific.”

Morman said he feels lucky to have taken on non-traditional roles throughout the years, a privilege other BIPOC performers participating in the forum have not been afforded. A few years ago, Morman played James Laurence in “Little Women,” a role usually reserved for white actors.

“When I went to the first read-through, I was thinking, ‘I must have a Black grandson.’ No, I had a white grandson. No one paid any mind to it because we were telling a story,” Morman said. “Isn’t that true today that someone could be white and have a Black grandfather? No one would think about it.”

King, whose CFEA organization formally launched in November 2020, agreed that what we see on stages and screens should be reflective of the community’s demographics.

Those interested in CFEA’s mission can visit Cfeanow.org and subscribe to their mailing list for information on upcoming events, such as their mental health series.

“We need to start somewhere and we need to have some sort of benchmark,” King said. “What does equity look like? I feel it looks like a good representation of what our community actually is.”

CFEA is comprised of 28 team members working toward executing their vision of racial equity, diversity and inclusion within Central Florida’s entertainment community. King said the organization has continued to build since Morman and other Central Florida performers attended its forum last July, and she doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon.

“We’ve had meetings with visual arts leaders, theater leaders and entertainment company leaders. We have ongoing conservations and because we are maintaining open communication with them, they are making changes within their organizations,” King stated. “It’s kind of a snowball effect. Some things will take time to unfold, but things are happening for sure.”

Gradual change is a concept both Morman, and the characters he inhabits, are familiar with.

After his closing curtain call in “Driving Miss Daisy,” Morman realized something. He knew what he wanted audiences to take away from his performances.

“We should judge less (and) acknowledge and respect our differences,” he said. “Caring and compassion will be automatic.”

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About the Author:

Samantha started at WKMG-TV in September 2020. Before joining the News 6 team, Samantha was a political reporter for The Villages Daily Sun and has had freelance work featured in the Evansville Courier-Press and The Community Paper. When not writing, she enjoys travelling and performing improv comedy.