When the controversial film GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER was released in December 1967, only six months had elapsed since miscegenation was illegal in 17 Southern states. The movie starred Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn and was the first romantic comedy/drama produced and directed by famed Stanley Kramer. Surprisingly, the film became an overnight sensation – even in the South – and won Oscars for William Rose for Best Original Screenplay and Katherine Hepburn for Best Actress – amid multiple nominations in the U.S. and internationally. This was to be the last film role for Tracy, who died only 17 days after the motion picture was released.
GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER puts a progressive white couple on the spot when their daughter unexpectedly shows up at her parents’ home with her fiancé, a world-renowned, brilliant, and relatively conservative older widowed physician – who just happens to be black. Blindsided by the couple’s unexpected arrival and whirlwind ten-day courtship – and by Dr. John Prentice (Marc Antonio Pritchett), whose darker complexion remains at the forefront of their thoughts – newspaper publisher Matt Drayton (Larry Eisenberg) and his wife Christina (Diana Angelina) find that their liberal views are put to the test. The basic question? Whether their lifelong and open-minded opinions about race will transfer to the real-life dilemma posed by their daughter Joanna (Abigail Stewart) and her future husband. After all, as Matt Drayton so casually opines, there’s a difference between accepting blacks in general and his daughter’s decision to marry a black man. The other question to consider, for that matter, is how the good doctor’s parents will deal with the couple’s imminent marriage. Clearly, John Prentice Sr. (Frederick Dawson) and his wife Mary (Patricia A. Lewis), parents of the prospective groom, have their own strong feelings about the proposed merger. Even the Drayton’s black maid Tillie (Crystal Yvonne Jackson), who Joanna was sure would be her strongest ally and advocate, throws in her own suspicious two-cents about John’s motives.
Adapted from William Rose’s screenplay, playwright Todd Kreidler has done a beautiful job of seamlessly transferring a motion picture to the stage. Director Cate Caplin helms the production with a compassionate eye to the conundrum involved – but also allows emotions to explode when characters are rubbed the wrong way just a little too hard for comfort. Kudos to the actors who “get it” and help the audience appreciate the tension punctuating the love inherent in each scene – with special note of Monsignor Ryan (David Hunt Stafford), who lends stability to the rocking boat, Tillie Binks (Crystal Yvonne Jackson), absolutely perfect as the suspicious “Down South” black maid, and the Prentices Sr. (Frederick Dawson and Patricia A. Lewis), who remind us that prejudice may work both ways. This is a tale with no easy answers – and the performers leave space for the audience to grapple with the difficult issues. Insight and humor co-exist and lend this story the thought and intensity it deserves. Congratulations are also in order for the creative team. Jeff G. Rack’s scenic design brings us all back to the 1960s, as do Derrick McDaniel’s lighting, Nick Foran’s sound, and Michael Mullen’s costumes. Songs of the era will evoke long-forgotten memories for older audience members. Remember those Beatles’ hits of the 60s?
GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER is as timely today as it was over 50 years ago. Today’s society is still struggling with some of the same issues and problems. This is a fascinating play which offers some intriguing and entertaining views about a culture of prejudice which should have disappeared long ago. That it has not should lead to some thought-provoking questions which will continue after the curtain falls.
GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER runs through December 18, 2022, with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. On December 7 and 14, (Wednesdays) performances are added at 7:30 p.m.; no performances on November 24 and 25 (Thanksgiving). Theatre 40 performs in the Reuben Cordova theatre in Beverly Hills High School, located at 241 S. Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90212. Tickets are $35. For information and reservations, call 310-364-0535 or go online.