Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is the story of unexpected and uncomfortable reactions to love between a black man and a white woman. It brings up the issue of racism from all fronts: the African American maid, the progressive white newspaper publisher, and the elderly African American man. “You still think of yourself as a colored man. And I think of myself as a man,” says Malcolm-Jamal Warner of The Cosby Show in his Arena Stage debut as Dr. John Prentice.
It takes courage to adapt a work as monumental as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, especially when you consider its historic significance – never before had race relations been so openly discussed on the screen. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, released in 1967, essentially ended concerns over whether or not films with African American actors as leads could have mainstream success. And anti-miscegenation laws were declared unconstitutional near the end of production.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was legendary actor Spencer Tracy’s last film – he was scheduled for filming three hours a day during the morning to accommodate his poor health. Katharine Hepburn and Stanley Kramer had to use their salaries as backing because Tracy wasn’t granted insurance. His final heartbreaking monologue sparked real tears from Katharine Hepburn, his longtime partner, lover, and friend.
In short, it takes gumption to not only recreate a classic, but improve it: Playwright Todd Kreidler adds a new relevance to William Rose’s original screenplay in this transfixing production on Arena’s Fichandler Stage. “The systemic racism and the endemic attitudes are cloaked, but they’re still very much alive,” says Kreidler. It is amazing to observe how far we’ve come but heartbreaking to see how much has remained the same. (It is interesting to note that Arena Stage was the first regional theater to integrate its acting company.)
Director David Esbjornson uses stylish scene changes to cast this production into the present – actors slowly move to their places under dimmed lights to the soundtrack of late 60s nostalgia. Paul Tazewell’s costumes are subtly retro – you never feel like the production team at Arena Stage is having too much fun with the throwback. True to Esbjornson’s vision, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is set in the past, but is very much of the present.
Now for the performances: Malcolm-Jamal Warner is charming and relateable as Doctor John Prentice. His interactions with John Prentice Sr. (played with passion and skill by Eugene Lee) urge the question “What do we owe the generation that came before us?” Designed as the archetypical “perfect man other than his skin tone,” Warner is most interesting struggling to maintain the perfection and control essential to avoiding the label of “Angry Black Man.”
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Closes January 5, 2013
Arena Stage at the
Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $75 – $90
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Bethany Anne Lind as Joanna Drayton is an actress to keep your eye on. The original screenplay fashioned her as innocent and simplistic, but Kreidler’s script gives Lind room to develop a more complex and fascinating character. Her final monologue about the value of ten days is genuine, raw, and unsettling – three words that describe Lind’s performance overall.
Lynda Gravátt is hysterical as Matilda Banks (Tilly), the Drayton’s maid – she is able to convey in gestures alone what many need monologues to communicate. Tom Key is particularly endearing and believable as Joanna’s father, Matt Drayton. It may be cliché to say that the actors of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner made me feel like their play was real life, but the cliché is true. Tess Malis Kincaid plays Joanna’s mother with spunk and heart. It is a hard task to follow Katharine Hepburn without following too closely, but Kincaid puts the right amount of herself into the character.
Other solid performances come from Andrea Frye, Valerie Leonard, and Michael Russotto, who is laugh out loud funny and entertaining as Monsignor Ryan.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is overall much funnier this time around – an uncomfortable “we know what’s coming” humor permeates throughout the script, but the comic relief never interferes with the overarching themes of racism, family, loss, and progressive ideals put to the test.
The perfect piece of theater – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner‘s realism will rattle and unarm you. Come with walls up and leave with an open heart and endless questions. I highly recommend it.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner by Todd Kreidler . Based on the screenplay by William Rose . Director: David Esbjornson . Featuring Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Andrea Frye, Lynda Gravátt, Tom Key, Tess Malis Kincaid, Eugene Lee, Valerie Leonard, Bethany Anne Lind, and Michael Russotto . Set Designer: Kat Conley . Costume Designer: Paul Tazewell . Lighting Designer: Allen Lee Hughes . Sound Designer: Timothy M. Thompson . Assistant Stage Manager: Michael D. Ward . Stage Manager: William E. Cruttenden III . Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Rebecca Evans.
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