Richardson — The Lunatic Theatre Company has partnered with the Richardson Theatre Centre to mount this Texas premiere of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, adapted by Todd Kreidler from the 1967 William Rose screenplay. There are differences between the play and screenplay, but Kreidler has left the core of Rose’s story unchanged — what happens when the daughter of a white west coast liberal family brings home a black man as her fiancé? The Library of Congress has designated the film for preservation in the National Film Registry, a recognition of it as culturally, historically and aesthetically significant.
William Rose won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for the 1967. It was a star-filled cast of Academy Award nominees and winners: Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy, Beah Richards, Katherine Houghton and Roy E. Glenn. The film became very popular, though black and white audiences had differing reasons for wanting to see it.
It was released just six months before interracial marriages became legal in the United States through a Supreme Court decision, Loving v. Virginia. The Civil Rights Act had been signed into law but in 17 states it remained illegal in for black and white people to marry. Even the hint of a romantic liaison was reason enough for a negative, sometimes fatal, response from the opposition. Kissing scenes between Sidney Poitier and Katherine Houghton were filmed but excised from the final cut out of concern over public reaction.
Rose wrote the screenplay as a message piece about racism among white people who considered themselves liberal. It was a hot topic to be sure, but Rose was an experienced comic writer and found the sweet spot for packaging the sensitive subject matter. As Houghton explained in her Dallas interview with for the 2017 Dallas International Film Festival “ … I don’t think he wrote it for black people. He wrote it for white people because they were the ones who were causing the problems.
To the credit of director Rachael Lindley, there is not a weak element in this production. Eddy Herring and Leigh Wyatt Moore designed an elegant set representative of a late-’60s aristocracy home in San Francisco. Courtney Walsh’s costumes represent period and socio-economic status. Congratulations to the actors for working so well as an ensemble to tell this story.
Kreidler’s script brings the audience into the home of Christina and Matt Drayton (Moore and Gary Anderson). It is a busy day. Drayton Gallery owner Christina is conferring with the gallery’s associate director, Hilary St. George (Carol M. Rice). They are preparing for a presentation later for their client, Mr. Cazalet, who is expanding his collection. Matt, publisher of the prominent San Francisco newspaper, The Guardian, is in the process of leaving for his golf game. The housekeeper Matilda “Tillie” Banks (Patricia E. Hill) keeps admonishing him each time he tries to find a reason work instead. Matt is under doctor’s orders to take it easy.
Daughter Joanna “Joey” Drayton (Kennedy O’Kelley) surprises her parents by arriving a week earlier than expected from Hawaii where she has been a hospital intern. She has brought a friend with her, medical researcher Dr. John Prentice, Jr. (Sean Massey). Joanna had told her parents she was bringing a friend. She has not told them he is black, nor has she announced their engagement.
Matt’s friend, Monsignor Ryan (Budd Mahan), who has dropped by to visit, is invited to stay for dinner. Tillie had been given the night off, but Joanna has asked the family to stay in for dinner. In a move intended to surprise John, she also calls and invites his parents to join them: schoolteacher John Prentice, Sr. (Calvin Gabriel) and department store clerk Mary Prentice (Cheryl Lincoln). They have no idea she is white.
For the volatility within the script, it is within the many small details and gestures that this ensemble makes the script buzz. There are the if-looks-could-kill glances Moore gives the Gabriel and Lincoln after something disparaging was said about Joanna. Gabriel’s seething is like a buildup to volcanic eruption, his annoyance is so pitched. Tightly coiled Massey seems on the brink of code-switching several times, which would not have been a good thing. O’Kelley blends the life-is-wonderful youthfulness of Joanna with her steely resolve. The comedic timing by Mahan is perfect, are his gestures and cadence. Hill is the broadest among them as Tillie, who is having a certifiable conniption.
It should not be assumed that black and white audiences receive Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner the same way. That most certainly was not the case initially. There were grumblings among black viewers about the black characters.
The most disconcerting character in this message piece for black audiences was that of Dr. Prentice, who was written stereotypically as the “super negro” — the black person who has to be disproportionally credentialed just to be seen, but who even given all of that, will not be accepted. The counter argument is that this is exactly why Rose wrote the screenplay, to unmask the racism of what the Monsignor calls “phony liberalism.”
Tillie delivers a different message, that of the black person who will align herself with her white employers in suspicion of the black man, even after knowing of his profile. There was a feeling within the black audience that the real reason for Tillie’s reaction to Prentice was misrepresented because it was either unknown or misunderstood.
Kreidler is a contemporary playwright, adapting this 52-year-old story for today’s audiences. How nice it would be if this play were dated, far removed from contemporary life, but this is not the case. Interracial relationships no longer cause clocks to stop ticking but laws do not change hearts. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner has a place today. The production by Lunatic Theatre and the Richardson Centre Theatre brings the story to us with care, respect, and laughter.