One form of art often become inspiration for another presentation. Earlier in the year, we saw a staged version of Metamorphosis, which was compiled from the poems by Ovid. The movie industry mines novels, and more often these days comic books, for characters and plot lines. At times stage productions become developed into movie scripts to reach a larger audience than might make their way to Broadway. Less often, the the flow of drama go from the screen to the stage. Todd Kreidler has looked back to an iconic movie of the late 1960’s, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and created a stage version, at Arena Stage.
The movie’s title might remind you of the movie with Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, and Katharin Houghton in which they challenge each other about their expressed views about race-relationships when theory become actuality. I will admit that I know about, but have never seen the movie, thus I will not be making comparisons. The larger question that crossed our minds when going to the theatre was of what relevance would this play have to society 40 years on?
All plays are set in some time, whether this be historical, imagined, or futuristic. Love In Afghanistan, Troilus and Cressida, Return to the Forbidden Planet each set action in some time frame. The characters and action occur in that time frame and make sense within that time frame. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is set in 1967, in an upper middle class household in an exclusive neighborhood in San Francisco. The set and costume designers worked to recreate accurately this time period. If the play were to have universal themes relevant to today, we would have to transport them from this time and location, just as the themes from the airbase outside of Kabul, or the battlefield of Troy, or the flight deck of a spaceship in those other plays came to us.
We start the play learning about the Drayton household. Christina Drayton (Tess Malis Kincaid) runs an art dealership. She and her assistant, Hilary St. George (Valerie Leonard), are preparing to for a private showing of paintings to a wealth collector. Their housekeeper, Matilda Binks (Lynda Gravatt) goes about her business of keeping the home presentable and answering the door and phone to manage the comings and goings of people. While this is a play about educated-liberals with favorable views toward racial integration, in the first scenes we see the contrast between the collection of art from cultures around the world, and the black character performing a service role. Matt Drayton (Tom Key), is the high strung newspaper editor who has been told to hand-off the reigns to a younger generation of associates, or risk jeopardizing his health.
These characters go about setting up easels and paintings, making phone calls, and fretting that they have not heard from their daughter in a week since she left for vacation from her medical residency position in Hawaii. To keep us in the time frame, this was an era before long distance phone calls were the norm and post cards from vacation might arrive after the person arrived home. Joanna Drayton (Bethany Anne Lind) arrives home wanting to surprise her parents by bringing home the man whom she has fallen in love with. She met Dr. John Price (Malcolm-Jamal Warner), who is an internationally known doctor, at the hospital, courted over lunches, then spent their vacation together. The first two guesses as to who is coming to dinner are Joanna returning home & her beloved.
Christina and Matt are surprised and enthusiastic, until John enters, confounding their expectations. John is smiles, manners, and every bit the gentleman that they would want their daughter to marry, except he is black. Joanna soon confronts them with the reality that this situation should not be unexpected, for they have brought her up to believe that all people are the same, regardless of race. If anything, John treats her better than they might have expected of men in their social class. John is all reserve (even confirming that they have not been intimate and would not until married, and would not marry with out the parents’ consent.). Joanna is vivacious, energetic, and idealistic. Matt voices his concern, as a father, that Joanna cannot assess the potential risks of their proposed marriage because of her idealism.
In her idealism, Joanna has, unknown to anyone else, also contacted John’s parents, who live two hours away in Sacramento. Guess who’s coming to dinner? When John Prentice Sr. (Eugene Lee) and Mary Prentice (Andrea Frye) arrive, they are as surprised to learn with whom their son has fallen in love. They express as much discomfort with the dilemma as Matt and Christina do. While they might also strive for racial equality, and have worked diligently over the years for their family’s education and financial success, this is not the step that they want their son to take. John Sr. and Matt agree that society is not ready for John and Joanna to step out in public.
The play is a combination of pairings of different characters, debating various arguments for and against this marriage. Over the course of the couple of hours that it is played out, more or less in real time, each has internal debates that bring him or her to different conclusions. Meanwhile, two symbols linger in the background, Matilda and the dinning room table, which she progressively sets with more places for the gathering at dinner. Matilda holds the knowledge that clarifies the conflict for each character. She knows the songs that John grew up with from his grandmother, to bring him to his heritage. She recounts how Matt acted on his convictions about equality by traveling across the country with her to help her get to her mother’s funeral. She talks about why she left her home and family in Georgia to build a new life outside the confines of separate-but equal laws.
For all the dialogue in these scenes, the most tender moment of the play is not spoken but acted. This play is about how words have limits that actions can overcome. As Matilda prepares to serve dinner, John Sr. stands ready to leave the house. Joanna walks over to him, putting her arm around his, and escorts him to the table. The table is round. Each member of the dinner is equally close and distant to everyone else. No seat is at the head of the table over the others.
Watching this moment, I thought about integration and family. Over the decades since this play, integrated audiences do not raise eye brows. Arena stage was the first theatre in Washington, D.C. to open their doors to anyone who purchased a ticket, and the first to include integrated casts to perform on stage. I pondered the theme of social equality and acceptance. Looking beyond the integrated couples at the performance, my eye rested briefly on the two men sitting next to us. A couple, middle-aged, educated, together, any different from us?