It's been more than 40 years since Virgil Covington Jr. performed onstage, but now, at age 59, he is set to make a comeback as Hoke, the chauffeur in The Woodford Theatre's production of Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Driving Miss Daisy.
Covington took his last bow on the stage when he was a freshman at Wittenberg College. A psychology major led him to teaching, a career path shared by fellow Bryan Station High School alum Trish Clark.
Clark and Covington shared the stage in a high school performance of the musical Oliver! (Clark played young Oliver, and Covington was the antagonist Fagin).
Their paths crossed again during their careers as educators in Lexington. Clark taught at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, which Covington's children attended, and Covington was a principal at Winburn Middle School.
Both are now retired from their public school careers and have taken on new professional challenges. Clark is the interim artistic director at The Woodford Theatre in Versailles, and Covington is the principal at Providence Christian Academy in Georgetown.
Driving Miss Daisy, which debuted in 1987, is about the decades-long friendship between a Southern Jewish woman, Daisy (played in The Woodford Theatre's production by Martha Campbell), and her black chauffeur, Hoke.
When director Beth Kirchner, former artistic director at The Woodford Theatre, was casting roles for the show, Clark immediately thought of Covington.
"I called him and said, 'Don't you think it's time you came back onstage?'" Clark recalls.
Starring as Hoke — a role that helped make Morgan Freeman famous when he reprised his off-Broadway performance in the 1989 film version of the play — was the last thing on Covington's mind — but he was intrigued by the invitation.
"I've got this thing where I don't seek something," he says.
"I'm working here at school, I do my thing at church," he says, alluding to his day job as a principal and his active involvement in Main Street Baptist Church. "When Trish called and invited me to try out, it met my criteria of not seeking, and I thought if the Lord wanted me to do it I'd get the call and if I am to be chosen to do this then it's going to be what it needs to be.
"It's just been a blessing, and I'm just hoping that when people come that they will be blessed by the performance," he says.
Covington says his faith has played a big part in his adjustment from being a school principal every day to acting onstage.
He admits to having the "gift of gab," but learning so many lines for a major role was another story.
"Learning these lines and the dialect that is there and then trying to give an interpretation to it has been kind of a challenge," he says.
Covington says he uses prayer to help calm his nerves and prepare himself for his performance.
"I like really going into deep prayer before and after each performance," he says. "When I do that I just feel more relieved and more comfortable with it."
Although Covington hasn't been in the spotlight for more than four decades, the arts have played an important role in his family's life.
Son Virgil III and daughter Rebecca began to study the violin when they were toddlers and continued their arts educations at SCAPA.
"Rebecca could read music before she could read," Covington says proudly, and with reason. Rebecca will make her Broadway debut this spring with Motown: The Musical, about Motown Record founder Berry Gordy.
With a third grandchild on the way from son Virgil III, now a manager at Malone's restaurant, the timing of Covington's return to the theater is so touching to him that he tears up during a phone interview when talking about his children.
"I'm so proud of my kids," he says. "They've never seen me do something like this."
IF YOU GO
'Driving Miss Daisy'
What: The Woodford Theatre's production of Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer Prize-winning play from 1987.
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 1, 2, 8, 9, 15, 16; 2 p.m. Feb. 3, 10, 17.
Where: The Woodford Theatre, in the Falling Springs recreation center, 275 Beasley Rd., Versailles
Tickets: $19, $12 students; available by calling (859) 873-0648 or at Woodfordtheatre.com.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.