James Earl Jones blows out second of his two 80th Birthday cakes.

*Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was a special day at the smash hit Broadway production of playwright Alfred Uhry’s smash hit revival of Driving Miss Daisy now playing at the Golden Theatre (252 West 45 Street) where it opened to rave reviews on October 25, 2010 for a limited engagement but has been enjoying such success that it’s been extended through Saturday, April 19, 2011.

Not only was it the iconic civil rights activists birthday, but also that of Miss Daisy star, James Earl Jones, who was surprised onstage with an 80th birthday celebration by his co-stars Vanessa Redgrave and Boyd Gaines, along with Uhry and director David Esbjornson.  The smash hit Broadway production of Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play is a timeless, searing, funny, and ultimately hopeful meditation on race relations in America, told through the complex relationship between two of popular culture’s most enduring characters.

When Daisy Werthan (Redgrave), a widowed, 72-year-old Jewish woman living in midcentury Atlanta, is deemed too old to drive, her son, Boolie (Gaines), hires Hoke Coleburn (Jones), an African American man, to serve as her chauffeur.  What begins as a troubled and hostile pairing, soon blossoms into a profound, life-altering friendship that transcends all the societal boundaries placed between them.

The creative team of Driving Miss Daisy includes John Lee Beatty (scenic), Jane Greenwood (costume), Peter Kaczorowski (lighting), Wendall K. Harrington (projection), Christopher Cronin (sound) and Mark Bennett (music).

Vanessa Redgrave gives a hearty birthday greeting to her co-star James Earl Jones as Boyd Gaines looks on.

Jones’ birthday started out with Mayor Michael Bloomberg at a breakfast that took place at Martin Luther King, Jr. High School at 8:00 a.m. commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  The Tony award winning actor wowed the crowd with his special remarks about Dr. King.  Others appearing on the program included City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

Later that evening a special talk-back discussion took place following the 8:00 p.m. performance.  The discussion included Uhry, Esbjornson, and Dr. Vivaldi Jean-Marie, a Columbia University professor specializing in African American Philosophy.

Ironically, in the classic production, Dr. King is an off stage presence in the play, and his impact on race relations in mid-century America serves as a catalyst for the evolution of Hoke and Daisy’s relationship.

The talk-back segment proved to be very popular resulting in producers Jed Bernstein and Adam Zotovich initiating a Driving Miss Daisy series of post-performance talk-backs celebrating Black History Month every Wednesday in February.  The first event took place on Wednesday, February 2, immediately following the show’s 8:00 p.m. performance with a discussion of the timeless nature of the show’s issues and themes.

The discussion included president of the National Urban League and former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial and David J. Dent, professor of journalism and social and cultural analysis at New York University, and was moderated by former Court TV anchor and CNN correspondent Adaora Udoji.

Here are the other discussions happening during Black History Month:  Wednesday, Feb. 9, moderator Michelle Miller, CBS News correspondent, guests Martha Hodes, New York University professor, and Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott; Wednesday, Feb. 16, moderator Jed Bernstein, guests Harold Ford, Jr., former U.S. Congressman and frequent “Morning Joe contributor, and Jennifer Morgan, New York University professor; Wednesday, Feb. 23, moderator Jed Bernstein, guests Kathryn Stockett, best-selling author of The Help, and Jonathan Schorsch, Columbia University professor.

Driving Miss Daisy is produced on Broadway by Jed Bernstein, Adam Zotovich, Elizabeth Ireland McCann, Roger Berlind, Beth Kloiber, Albert Nocciolino, Jon Platt, StylesFour Productions, Ruth Hendel/Shawn Emamjomeh, Larry Hirschhorn/Spring Sirkin, Carl Moellenberg/Wendy Federman, Daryl Roth/Jane Bergére, in association with Michael Filerman. (Photo by Walter McBride/Retna Ltd.)

Audrey J. Bernard is an established chronicler of Black society and Urban happenings based in the New York City area.