The best way to describe the new Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner at Arena Stage is this: if you remember when you first fell in love; if you’d like to feel that way again – go to see this production, and revel in the sheer crazy wonder of it all. The iconic young actor, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, leads a stellar cast, in a stunning, revelatory performance of a play which reminds us how art humanizes us, by helping us to tell painful truths to one another; to rise above suffering; and ultimately, to grow into an understanding of charity and love. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is the chronicle of a privileged white couple, Christina and Matt Drayton, whose liberal values are tested when they meet their prospective African-American son-in-law. The play, by Todd Kreidler, is adapted from William Rose’s screenplay for the 1967 film. Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith has called it “[an] American story about love, family, class and race”.
The play premiered earlier in July 2012 at the True Colors Theater in Atlanta, directed by Kenny Leon. Several actors from the Atlanta production appear here at Arena Stage. In 2005, there was a racially reversed film version called Guess Who? notable chiefly for excellent performances by Bernie Mac, Ashton Kutcher, and Zoe Saldana.
The 1967 movie was controversial for its day. It featured extraordinary performances by Katharine Hepburn (Christina Drayton), Spencer Tracy (Matt Drayton) and Sidney Poitier (Dr. John Prentice); an on-screen interracial kiss, seen in the mirror of a taxi, between Sidney Poitier as Dr. John Prentice and Katharine Houghton as the Draytons’ daughter Joey; and the opportunity to watch two great stars play out the last act of one of our most legendary love stories, on or off the screen.
Today, interracial marriage is much less controversial. In 2011, Gallup reported that over 86 percent of Americans have no problem with blacks and whites getting married, for example. Hollywood couples like Alfre Woodard and Roderick Spencer, Thandie Newton and Ol Parker, and Kanye West and Kim Kardashian are profiled and photographed. In a 2012 Pew study, 43 percent of Americans said that people of different races marrying each other marks a change for the better in society. Nearly two-thirds (63%) said that “it would be fine” if someone in their family married a person of a different race or ethnicity. To some, this progress has its down side; in her excellent Huffington Post article, Black Women, Interracial Dating, and Marriage: What’s Love Got to Do with it? (Black Voices, Nov. 5, 2013) Tiya Miles, Chair of the Department of Afroamerican & African Studies at the University of Michigan, expresses beautifully the “tangled and difficult” nature of the issue, and her feelings about it as an African-American woman.Today, there are certainly critiques of interracial marriage from both the left and the right. But by contrast, when the movie came out, interracial marriage was still illegal in some states.
Director Stanley Kramer initially concealed the subject from studio executives, calling it a love story. In a 2008 interview with Voice of America News, Stanley Kramer’s widow, Karen, said that when the studio bosses read the screenplay, they canceled the picture. The rationale at the time was Spencer Tracy’s failing health. Kramer and Hepburn had to put their salaries up as collateral to get the project approved. Film historian Donald Bogle has noted, in an interview for Turner Classic Movies, that Kramer’s film was very much affected by industry fears in Hollywood at that time.
Todd Kreidler has modernized the script and brought it into the 21st Century. Even though the play is still set in 1967, and convincingly so, the passion, humor and bitterness that were present, yet somewhat muted, in the movie, explode into vivid fury, tenderness and fire.
As Dr. John Prentice, Warner, an actor and musician, who is best known for his work on The Cosby Show, commands the stage. Yet his warmth and wit make it easy to see why Joanna (“Joey”) Drayton (Bethany Ann Lind) loses her heart to him despite the obstacles they both face. At one point, Dr. Prentice even quotes Tolstoy (“All happy families are alike”). Dr. Prentice is described as a world-famous expert in tropical medicines. In the movie, some derided his character as an impossibly perfect superhero; here, as Mr. Warner plays him, in a layered, subtle performance, he is anything but one-dimensional. Ms. Lind matches him at every point; her character is utterly charming but equally determined, even-strong-minded. Kreidler has strengthened her character by making her at intern at the same hospital where she meets Dr. Prentice.
Another improvement in the script, and a very telling one, is that the two families share a history of loss. This powerfully enhances the underlying bond between the families and makes it easier to see how it would be possible for them to empathize with one another. In his initial review of the film, Roger Ebert noted that the plot mirrors countless drawing room comedies about an” ineligible” suitor, from Shaw’s Man and Superman to The Philadelphia Story. Kreidler has kept this basic structure intact; but he has strengthened and enhanced the script with his own unique humor and 21st century outlook. The racial tensions of today are very real; and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner addresses them with humanity and insight.
Tom Key (Matt Drayton) has many fine moments; in particular, he makes his concern for his daughter’s future palpable and based on fear of the obstacles the couple will face, rather than any objection to Dr. Prentice. He and Tess Malis Kincaid (Christina Drayton) navigate the many pleasures and minefields of a long marriage with style and insight. Ms. Kincaid is particularly compelling in her intense reactions to her art gallery employee, Hilary St. George (Valerie Leonard) who displays some racist characteristics, as Kincaid’s energy and decisiveness recall Hepburn at her best.
Leonard, with a spectacular sixties hairdo, carries off the difficult role of Hilary St. George with humor and flair. Lynda Gravátt, in another challenging role (for different reasons) makes Matilda Binks into a paragon of hard-won wisdom. Her look of utter disinterest when Hilary St. George trills her request to tell her all her secrets is just one of the many jewels in her multi-faceted, many-splendored performance. By giving her a far more nuanced, powerful role, and by letting us see the lovers together much more than we do in the movie, Kreidler gives us a much fuller picture of how the story might play out.
Andrea Frye (Mary Prentice) and Eugene Lee (John Prentice Sr.) give exceptionally truthful, searing performances. The pain of these two devoted parents has never been more real, and their individual moments of crisis are rendered with great intensity and panache. Michael Russotto is a delight as the cheerful Monsignor Ryan, who alternately tries to charm and coerce Matt Drayton into accepting the inevitable. “Am I the belle of the ball?” he quips, at one point, evoking laughter on the stage as well as in the audience.
The distinguished director David Esbjornson, whose work at the Classic Stage Company in NYC I have admired, directs flawlessly, finding every nuance in the superb script. Kat Conley’s set design has just the right combination of sophistication with just a hint of pretension; one can imagine the Draytons in an Upper West Side apartment in New York in the eighties, a progressive couple who have style, and aren’t afraid to show it.
Paul Tazewell’s costumes blend beautifully together, yet each has its own unique elements. They are all deeply evocative of the particular time and place, and lovely in their own right as well. Anne Nesmith’s wig design (I don’t presume to know who is wearing a wig) was all sixties, all the time, and all fabulous. Lighting Designer Allen Lee Hughes and Sound Designer Timothy M. Thompson create a mood and style that enhances every aspect of this marvelous production.
In 1967 Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was billed as “A love story for today”. The key question is, does this new adaptation have relevance in 2013? The answer is a resounding “Yes!” Although interracial marriage is far more common and much more accepted, interracial couples still face discrimination, and there is no shortage of racism in our society. The recurrent racism that has been displayed towards President Obama is one indication that we still have far to go. In a 2013 seminar paper entitled Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled”: The Depiction of African-Americans in US Popular Film and Television and its Traditions, Ulrich Ackermann refers to the problems inherent in the approach which expects blacks in the media to adapt to a dominant white lifestyle. Michael Eric Dyson notes in The Michael Eric Dyson Reader that interracial marriage can be seen as an honest love story, or as a kind of effort to somehow disown one’s own racial and cultural heritage.
But perhaps the play is really about the crisis that can be created by falling in love, and the excruciatingly painful process of growth which happens when people are suddenly faced with an utterly new and challenging future. Of course, there are uncomfortable moments – but aren’t uncomfortable moments what art is all about? People will always be falling in love against their better judgment; and what a pallid world it would be if they stopped.
Honore de Balzac said, “A woman knows the face of the man she loves as the sailor loves the open sea.” Surely love, as well as art, is worth the occasional heartache.
Arena Stage’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is one of the finest nights in the theatre I have ever had.
Running time: approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner plays through January 5, 2014 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth St., SW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.