“I’m discovering something new.” Todd Kreidler was referring to his temporary DC digs. He had just arrived and was exploring them during our phone interview. Earlier in the week, he had opened a show in New York. Then it was out to Chicago for Thanksgiving with his family. On this day after Thanksgiving, he had gone straight from the airport into a rehearsal and was just settling in. Although his remark applied to his housing, it might just as easily have applied to his reason for being in DC. He is here for Arena Stage’s production of his stage adaptation of the 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
Turning the screenplay (by William Rose) of a film he refers to as “iconic” into a play was not Kreidler’s idea. In fact, he was at first “skeptical.” The value of a stage adaptation was “something I didn’t see immediately.” The idea to do it came from Kenny Leon, Artistic Director of True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta. Both Leon and Kreidler had worked with August Wilson during the last years of Wilson’s life, and Leon subsequently invited Kreidler to be Associate Artistic Director at True Colors. Now, five years after Kreidler’s first draft, a year and change after a production at True Colors, and after (“long story”) the burst of the housing bubble scuttled potential commercial productions, Kreidler has become convinced. This new production plays through Jan. 5 on the Fichandler Stage.
Kreidler talked about how, once he was pushed into examining the idea, he came to embrace the opportunity to take a rarefied cultural artifact, about which many who know it have “strong opinions” in both directions, and discover the ways in which its sensibility and voice speak to us today. This involves a delicate balancing act, preserving the film’s “iconic moments,” which some in the audience will arrive expecting, while making a work which is “very much of 1967” relevant to a 2013 audience.
The first hurdle was formal: film is one thing, “stage is a whole different kind of animal.” Kreidler said it was relatively easy to conflate the action so that it occurs in a single setting. Also, the plot involves an ultimatum that propels the action, a “ticking clock”; it’s “hard for it to drag with that.”
For anyone too young to remember the movie, or familiar only with its title, which has attained wide usage as code for almost any big and unexpected surprise, it can be capsulized pretty easily. A young woman stuns her upper middle class, liberal white parents by bringing home an African-American fiancé. And, speaking of iconic, the parents were played by Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, not only huge Hollywood stars on their own, but together one of the most enduring and successful of romantic screen teams. This was their ninth picture together over a twenty-five year period. Neither had made a film for about five years, mostly due to Tracy’s deteriorating health and Hepburn’s care-giving. (The two, though not married to each other, became off-screen as well as on-screen partners.) The fiancé was played by Sidney Poitier, an icon in his own right, who had been breaking barriers for years, becoming, four years earlier, the first African-American actor to win the Best Actor Oscar.
Race was as important a part of the cultural conversation of the time as it was of the political conversation. The Oscar ceremony that year was dominated by another film starring Poitier, In the Heat of the Night, which had race central to its concerns. In addition to Best Picture and Best Director, that film’s other star, Rod Steiger, won Best Actor over Tracy (a previous two-time winner who, posthumously, had been nominated again; Hepburn did win Best Actress, the second of her four wins). Steiger, accepting the award mere days after the assassination of Dr. King, memorably addressed Poitier directly and quoted the anthem of the civil rights movement: “We shall overcome.”
The film was directed by Stanley Kramer (The Defiant Ones, Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg, On the Beach), known for earnest, socially conscious films that struck his admirers as daring and important and his detractors as sanctimonious. The film builds to the climax during which Tracy, as the voice of paternal wisdom, gives his blessing to his daughter’s interracial marriage, as Hepburn looks on with adoring, as well as wise, support. Many people who haven’t seen the entire film will have seen that speech, or excerpts from it. As Tracy speaks of his devotion to his wife, a public aware of the Tracy/Hepburn off-screen relationship (a Catholic, Tracy never divorced his wife) listened to the speech through that prism and the scene was assured a special place in Hollywood history.
Okay. In 2013, without those mega-stars in those roles, and after so much in our society has changed while so much is still unresolved and frequently charged, how is that scene going to play? Will it seem like a relic of a past era? Will the paternalism (sexual as well as racial) evident in the climax sound as tin-eared now as do recent tweets presuming the end of racism? So, Todd, how do you deal with that?
The ending does change, Kreidler told me. But the speech is definitely there. “They’ll hang you if you touch the speech!” Well, he hedged, the “spirit” of the speech is there. He has preserved “the DNA of the story.” He told me that he didn’t approach the project with a sense of “what can I bring from the outside” but rather that he wanted to “work within the material” and engage it in the “spirit of discussion.”
At this point in our conversation, Kreidler held his cards closely. He wanted to avoid “spoilers.” However, he let me know that there’s a “new button” to the show on stage; the Tracy character is not “the last person to come to the table.” He talks about the sense at the end of the film: “We’ve solved racism!” (Gee, thanks, Spence and Kate.) Reacting to that sense, though, Kreidler said there had been a voice missing, there’s a conversation we still need to have: “Coming through the door is someone else.” (Hmm. I’m intrigued!) As he stressed that the issues raised “provoke a conversation we still need to have,” he implied that the stage play has swapped out a pat resolution and taken the opportunity to “push back” at the film’s sense of “comfort and ease,” to opt for something “a little more complicated,” for a resolution that is more “open-ended.”
If that “button” is closely held in order to avoid spoilers, Kreidler is more forthcoming about other tinkering. Telling me that he looked at the film early on in the process of adapting the screenplay, but not since, he made distinctions between the film and the new play. Regarding the “Father Knows Best” aspect of the film, he assured me that the “husband and wife thing has been worked.” He talked about “opening up” scenes between the fiancé and his parents. (As those who have seen the film will remember, the fiancé is not only drop dead gorgeous Mr. Poitier, but a professional, a doctor, the kind of profession that would make the archetypal Jewish Mother ecstatic.) He talked also about how the single setting of the play affects the discussions within the fiancé’s family, now that they occur in the home of the white family. And he pointed out that the relationship between the young couple in the film was “never physicalized.” Whereas a 60s audience could deal with the concept of an interracial relationship more easily than with an actual expression of affection between the couple, that kind of hypersensitivity need not apply to an audience at Arena in 2013.
Most interestingly, Kreidler has changed what he calls the “prince and princess” aspect of the film script, which involves the love-at-first-sight, whirlwind dimension of the key relationship, where the young couple has only known each other for ten days. So, on stage, the two have had a much longer platonic relationship that evolved during the ten days prior to the action of the play into a romantic relationship.
Similarly, he addressed the “turnaround” of the Doctor’s initially skeptical Mother. One of the twists in the film is that the prospective African-American in-laws are more strongly against the mixed marriage than are the white family. Kreidler asked, “What does she see [that changes her attitude] that we don’t see in the film?”
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
Apparently, the run in Atlanta “revived interest” in this stage adaptation, “which is why we are here at Arena.” Kenny Leon, who directed in Atlanta, was slated to direct the Arena production. When his schedule precluded his involvement, the baton was passed to David Esbjornson. Though it is “great to have the long histories” he shares with Leon, Kreidler tempered his disappointment that Leon isn’t involved with excitement at having a “whole different sensibility” applied to the piece. Esbjornson is fresh, excited, and brings “an incredible sensitivity to the text.” That said, Kreidler admitted that it’s been “more work than I intended.”
The Poitier role is played at Arena by the television star Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who a generation grew up with as Theo on The Cosby Show. In Atlanta, Warner’s fellow Cosby Show alum Phylicia Rashad was in the cast. Rashad, despite a history of performances at Arena Stage, hasn’t travelled North for the Arena run.
However, I was able to point out another Cosby connection. After the run of I, Spy, but before the runaway success of The Cosby Show in the 80s, Cosby starred in a less successful sitcom. Called The Bill Cosby Show, it ran from 1969-71. I am old enough to have been a fan of that series and remember that his Mother was played by the late Beah Richards. (She was the second of two actresses playing Cosby’s Mother on that series, the first being Lillian Randolph.) It was Ms. Richards who played Poitier’s Mother in the film of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. A Google search I did to confirm my memory reminded me of the additional fact that Ms. Richards was also nominated for an Oscar for the film. (Ms. Richards lost to Estelle Parsons who has just been, funnily enough, on stage at Arena.)
“We’ve had a circle of Cosby people!” Kreidler remarked upon hearing of this connection, before the subject changed to his relationship with August Wilson, and the play from Wilson’s writings that he just opened in New York.
But, that’s another story…
Part 2 of our conversation: Todd Kreidler talks about August Wilson