Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: Racial Tension

By: Micaela Shambee– Editor, The Drive

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Photo Credit: CourtTheatre.org

–Romanticism, Realism, and Modernism converge in Marti Lyon’s 2018 production of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which chronicles an interracial couple’s request for approval to marry from their parents. Despite the weight of this request, the play’s premise rushes the parents and the audience through each scene to a final climactic decision, which must come before the couple departs to New York together. Driven by both a metaphorical and literal timer (10 days to fall in love and 24 hours to make a decision), the racial tension in the play rises to a boiling point at Dr. Prentice’s (Michael Aaron Pogue) dialogue with his visibly angry, work-ridden Black father (Dexter Zollicoffer), then slows to a heart-stopping beep, only after Matt Drayton’s (Tim Hopper) monologue, where he finally bestows his blessing upon the mixed-race couple. Though the play is very similar to its predecessor, the 1967 film by Stanley Kramer is different in its approach to setting, plot (scenes) and character.

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Photo Credit: IMBD.com

Surprisingly, the 1967 film, which Todd Kreidler’s 2012 play was adapted from, does not have the same sense of urgency. The film has moments where the characters can at least enjoy quiet introspection, usually coupled on the terrace with colorful bushes in the background or in Mr. Drayton’s cozy study. Lyons’ adaptation, however, is marked with the added tension of a stark-white setting, a quickly defunct art deal, and Mr. Drayton’s secret vice, his smoking habit, picked up by Dr. Prentice to calm his nerves after his explosive argument with his father. The smoking adds another layer of tension to the already tense atmosphere, which is a noticeable deviation from the original screenplay.

“Lyons makes up for these deviations by essentially adding tension between cigarette puffs, the actor’s speedy delivery of lines, and demanding more of supporting characters to bring outside tension in.”

 

In fact, the play tends to deviate from the film in a multitude of ways. Most notable is the obvious deletion of any scenes outside of the Drayton’s home. Considering the constraints of theater, director Marti Lyons’ choice to exclude scenes from the original screenplay, such as the mixed-couple’s lengthy walk and cab ride from the airport to the Drayton’s home, and Mr. and Mrs. Drayton’s (played by Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn) trip to the Ice Cream Parlor, where Mr. Drayton is forced to confront racism through the choice of a bunch of ice cream flavors (that leads to an accident with another African American man), are understandable, given the lack of the play’s physical mobility. However, the deletion of these scenes makes the play lose the influence of outside forces upon the couple and their parents’ decision (which the movie relies on), ultimately losing the slow build of rising racial tension that makes the 1967 film feel authentic. Lyons makes up for these deviations by essentially adding tension between cigarette puffs, the actor’s speedy delivery of lines, and demanding more of supporting characters to bring outside tension in, such as Mrs. Drayton’s outspoken assistant Hilary St. George (Rachel Sledd), and Irish, liberal-religious Monsignor Ryan (Dan Waller). By focusing all the tension between three spaces of the Drayton’s home, the setting feels claustrophobic, which actually parallels the racial tension of the plot quite well.

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Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune

However, in certain moments the plot moves along as if it were the movie, especially in characterization. The actors’ quick comical banter reveals irony and paradoxes in the play in a palatable manner, just as Sydney Poitier’s debonair suaveness soothes racial tension at every turn in the 1967 film. Katherine Hepburn (Mrs. Drayton) and her niece, Katherine Houghton’s (Joanne) emotive eyes reveal as much about hope, liberalism, and romanticism as Mary Beth Fisher (Mrs. Drayton) and Bryce Gangel’s (Joanne) performances render. The elegance of the Drayton’s home and decor, the characters’ stylish costumes, and wit all resemble that of the 1967 film.

Despite the nostalgia, the play is effective in its approximation of the screenplay, successfully capturing the sympathetic tone the film made about interracial marriage in 1967. The play comically manifests liberal hypocrisy in Mr. Drayton, somehow finds a way to bring Mr. Drayton and Mr. Prentice Sr. together, despite their obvious difference in attitude towards race, and gives the women of the play (apart from “Tillie”) a chance to explore hopeless romanticism, despite the peril of the couple existing as an interracial couple, which was a bit more sensational in 1967. Doctor Prentice and Tillie seem to be the only two that are able to look at the problem of race in the marriage with a balanced, realistic viewpoint. The characters are thus separated into three groups: those that believe the marriage is doomed, those that believe the marriage will be a success (because real love exists within), and those who are on the fence, unable to look away from the real pros and cons of the situation. However, special scrutiny is needed for Matilda “Tillie” Binks, the Drayton’s maid.

The-maid
Photo Credit: New City Stage

Tillie (Syndey Charles) is a special character in the play. Syndey Charles’ take on Tillie seems to slightly rewrite the 1967 loving, realistic, but stereotypical “Mammie” character Beah Richards made famous. Charles’ Tilly dishes out tough love, and fierce skepticism about Dr. Prentice that nearly makes one believe that the doctor is a trickster (and that Tillie may harbor internalized racism). Charles’ performance thus allows Tillie to move within the Drayton’s family drama as a person both hyper-aware of her race and also as a race-invisible family member. (Whereas Beah Richards’ Tillie wears her race on her sleeve at all times).

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Photo Credit: Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Photo: Columbia Pictures. NYMAG.com

Despite the obvious deviations from the original film, the play does not seem to improve the original story, but rather reinforce the same message. What Lyons allowed Sydney Charles to do with Tillie, should have been done with each of the characters as the others are quite similar to the original characters in the film. Sydney Charles’ Tillie, being one of the more modernistic characters in the play, departs from the stereotypical character just as a Modernist would break from sudden tradition, and that is where the play truly shines. A more modern approach to the other characters would have been appreciated, considering the six year difference of the film’s screenplay. However, the play and the film’s setting, characterization and plot create enough tension to offer a tantalizing race issue, enough to nearly wage a gender driven war.

∗∗∗∗ 4 out of 5 stars∗∗∗∗

Did you see the play? Do you remember the movie? What did you think? Sound off in the comments below!

 

–And remember,

Stay informed, open-minded, and driven.

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