'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner': Still Fresh in Obama's America

Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Bethany Anne Lind in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
Teresa Wood
Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Bethany Anne Lind in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

Even back in 1967,  “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” a hit movie and social comedy about white liberal parents facing their principles as their beloved daughter comes home with an African-American doctor she plans to marry, seemed a  little retro, out of touch and tune with the turbulent times where anything seemed possible.               

While entertaining, the movie tackled the subject of race in America with so many layers of kid gloves that you’d think it was morally snowing. Who could get mad at or even want to stand up to Spencer Tracy, entertaining serious doubts about such a marriage? What mother would not want her daughter to marry a black doctor with a United Nations portfolio, especially when he came into the house in the spitting image of Sidney Poitier? Certainly not the mother played by Katharine Hepburn, who after an initial attack of dizziness supported her daughter  As a topical dose of medicine about race and interracial marriage, the movie went down pretty easy and was, in fact, a highly entertaining hit, the kind of movie Hollywood liberals like to pat themselves on the back for (see “In The Heat of the Night”) come Oscar night.

Well, it’s almost 2014, and "miscegenation" is a word nobody utters any more at least not in public, nor can interracial couples be prevented from marriage. Himself a product of an interracial marriage, today's President of the United States is an African-American man, named Barrack Obama, a startling shock to the political culture which has not been fully absorbed, but which the characters in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” could hardly imagine.  “A secretary of state, maybe,” one of them says in Arena Stage’s deft, powerful, funny and affecting production of Todd Kreidler’s stage version of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

You’d think this play—hewing tightly to the plot line and talk and setting and time of the original film—would be a little old-fashioned, a little uncomfortably creaky around the edges, a period piece that has little to say to us, except perhaps we’ve come a long way, folks. 

Actually, the production is a total winner. Better still, it seems, in terms of the periodic grand debate about race, almost fresh and authentic, in ways that our increasingly economically and culturally separating society rarely manages today. For many reasons, it seems to speak to just about every part of the audience, at least in the performance I saw, which, as somebody pointed out, was a Washington audience. I went to a weekday matinee and sat in the middle of an audience which was full, responsive, diverse,  loud and as much a part of the play as the actors on stage, which is one of those rare and self-evident moments in the theater that you can cherish.  There are fairly obvious reasons for this: this was an audience full of groups of people who  had arrived by bus, many of them older, baby-boomer generation members, black and white, as part of groups, including a group of Washington members of a teachers union. There was also pumped-up high school kids who dove into the material with apparent relish.

There were several occasions—when the doctor’s mother scolded him and men in general and when you could tell exactly who was laughing— you just knew all the black moms in the audiences were laughing while their husbands and/or sons squirmed.  

There was a tremendous amount of energy at this matinee performance. Part of it had a lot to do with the fact that the play—despite the presence of a sackful of cliché moments and characters—struck a chord because the characters were indeed talking about race, haltingly, uncomfortably and at last straight-forwardly,  Today, such discourse only happens, when sensational events rouse the torpid, sometimes angry differences in our society.   Often, it seems to us—in the here and now and who were there back in the day—that we’ve come a long way and brought all our keepsakes and baggage with us.

So, in this case, the audience is a critical part of the production, but the cast and the pacing by director David Esbjornson should get huge dollops of credit.  The situation is rife with cliches, of course: the maid, as a character but not in the timing-perfect performance Lynda Gravatt  is one; the brogue-touched, whiskey-drinking Irish priest and family is another; one of those well-bred social bigots who manages to thrive even in 1967 San Francisco is still another.  But the humanity of all the characters shines through, because—at least partly—they’re not being played by the likes of Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn or Sidney Poitier.

In its mechanics, the play is as old fashioned as a Shaw play, in which George Bernard managed to touch on political, cultural and societal issues, while not forgetting to douse his plots with family secret and surprises. There are several family tragedies and two big surprises:the first when Joanna or the beloved Joey, daughter of the well-off Matt and Christina Drayton, arrives unexpectedly with the man she announces she’ll marry, the highly respectable, gifted, quite a bit older and obviously black Doctor John Prentice.  At first, daddy Matt, a prominent liberal editor, doesn’t get it. “What’s wrong with my daughter, doctor?” he asks, the first of many mistakes he makes.  Mom, played beautifully with great, silky grace by Tess Malis Kincaid, swoons a bit, but adjusts rapidly—love is, after all, the domain of mother and daughter.

But Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who is easily remembered as the son, Theo Huxtable, in “The Cosby Show” gives Prentice down-to-earth rough edges that Poitier never even tried for. He is strong, ardent, patient, a man who knows his worth, and what he wants and intends to get it, and is perfectly aware of what he and Joey are in for.  But he’s also imposed an artificial, even theatrical condition—the parents—hers—must approve, or there’s  no marriage.

Meanwhile, Joey—the delightful Bethany Ann Lind—does whatever she will for her cause, which is her love for John Prentice, to the point where she’s invited his parents for dinner without telling him. “I want it to be a surprise,” she said, surprising everyone.  The parents—a furious, pent-up Eugene Lee as John Prentice, Sr., and a stoic, frustrated Andrea Frye as Mary Prentice—are excellently played so much so that we begin to realize this play isn’t just about race but also about gender and memory.  This cast—because the audience can see themselves in them in ways that you just couldn’t do with, say, Spence,  Sidney and Kate—is so good that you can forgive Matt Drayton’s obtuse panic which challenges his own principles and his love. He can only turn his lips down when his wife reminds him: “We raised her to be exactly what she is.” You forgive because Tom Key is so recognizable as any father, and as any liberal hoisted on his own petard because he knows he’s been hoisted, he knows he’s torn and in pain.

This is a great evening—or better, yet, afternoon—at the theater.  “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”—quite a few people already have.  It’s playing at Arena Stage’s Mead Center for American Theater’s on the Fichandler Stage through Jan. 5.

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