Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? …Now

September 12, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Lonnie Farmer, Julia Duffy, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, and Meredith Forlenza in the Huntington Theatre Company production of Todd Kreidler’s compelling family comedy Guess Who's Coming to Dinner directed by David Esbjornson, playing Sept. 5 – Oct. 5, 2014. Photo: Paul Marotta

Lonnie Farmer, Julia Duffy, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, and Meredith Forlenza in the Huntington Theatre Company production of Todd Kreidler’s compelling family comedy Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner directed by David Esbjornson, playing Sept. 5 – Oct. 5, 2014. Photo: Paul Marotta

Guest review by Kevin C. Peterson

Against the political backdrop of a dashing, brilliant black president, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and the racial crisis now roiling in Ferguson, Missouri over the murder of unarmed Michael Brown by a local white police officer, the themes and tropes that comprise Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—which premiered at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston this week–seem absurdly lame and unforgivingly naive.

Originally released as a movie in 1967 to critical acclaim, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was also widely popular, featuring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn as white ultra-liberal parents who face a moral and racial reckoning when confronted with the “situation” that their daughter was on the verge of marrying a black man–played in the film sensationally by Sidney Poitier.

The current cast performing in Boston is excellent, led by Malcolm-Jamal Warner (Theo, from The Cosby Show, playing the pliant Dr. John Prentice), Will Lyman and Julia Duffy portraying Matt and Christina Drayton, the parents of Prentice’s fiancée, Joanna Drayton (Meredith Forlenza) and Patrick Shea, the grog-loving, but soulfully insightful Monsignor Ryan.

Each character alternatively gives the play superb moments that are lighthearted, grim, then sometimes earnestly introspective–reflecting the racial realism of the sexual taboos of the time.

The ensemble sparkles generally but is made more radiant by Lynda Gravatt, who plays the maid, Matilda Binks, the moral epicenter of this story. Gravatt’s protean talent brings to this production all of the spiritual and psychological gravitas of what it then meant to be Negro, female and American–the pangs of love and hate, servitude and dignity, bitterness, promise, and no-nonsense racial conservatism, that stresses family, continuity and tradition.

But mostly Matilda signifies–like Dilsey in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury or Aunt Ester Tyler in August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, the hopeful recognition that our humanity is ever waiting for opportunities to bloom, a careful optimism that, despite the country’s many tragic, racial sins, there is space for redemption for those on both sides of the aisle.

The issue of interracial marriage was all the rage at the time of film’s release. During its production, 17 states deemed interracial marriage a crime.

Decades later, this is now an archaic matter layered over and made obsolete by the elimination of anti-miscegenation laws and the emergence of an integrated national popular culture that has made aesthetic and cross-racial erotic choices sometimes simply a peculiarity of taste.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner remains an important literary artifact mainly because it reminds the carefully attentive clear insight into how hard the task is of achieving a racial democracy. This reality is made so clear as we simply look at neighborhood apartheid patterns that persist as an embarrassing American social feature.

The play, (which runs at the Huntington through October 5th) is good nostalgic theater that possesses moments that will evoke laughter and even raise high the irony that the guests at dinner at the White House every night currently are black.

But for Americans today–including Bostonians–who continue to take race seriously, who acutely understand the persistence of racial supremacy, this is a theater production that will also evoke some sadness.

Kevin PetersonKevin C. Peterson is a senior fellow at the Center for Collaborative Leadership at UMass Boston and a democracy activist.

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