Many would view the classic Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” as an artifact from the past. The film arrived in theaters in 1967; its subject matter: interracial marriage, a hugely controversial issue at the time. Does the controversy still rage?
Playwright Todd Kreidler, whose 2013 adaptation of the film has made its way to Chicago’s Court Theatre, asks: What does it mean to do this play in 2018? That task of discovery has been assigned to director Marti Lyons and associate director Wardell Julius Clark.
‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’
When: To April 15
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis
“It’s definitely a product of its time,” Lyons admits. “Yet I think it does resonate in a contemporary sense but not always in a way one would expect.”
Adds Clark: “Some things in the story were ringing true and some things were ringing false. That was something I really wanted to investigate.”
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” takes place in the home of liberal, upper-class couple Matt and Christina Drayton (Tim Hopper, Mary Beth Fisher) as their daughter Joanna (Bryce Gangel) introduces them to her African-American fiance, Dr. John Prentice (Michael Aaron Pogue).
The conversation immediately turns to race in America, an issue that remains highly relevant, Lyons says.
“In some ways there are more complicated conversations about race to be had in this piece,” she notes. “And in examining it further we also unearthed some interesting perspectives, I think, about gender relationships as well as the class and generational differences in the piece.”
One of the goals was to look closer at the roles of the women and the patriarchal structure that exists in the 1967 world of the play.
“Women are often on stage but not necessarily the focus of the conversation,” Clark says. “They are just standing listening to the men speak.”
One of the ways into this discussion was looking at the character of Tillie, the Draytons’ African-American maid (played here by Sydney Charles) and the role she plays in their household. Lyons feels the play is “very self-aware” that it’s “an investigation of white liberal hypocrisy.”
“There is an ideal expressed in the play that everyone has a seat at the table, but of course, at the end of the play, Tillie does not have a seat at the table,” Lyons says, adding, “We’re not trying to upend the story so much as just trying to highlight additional perspectives and experiences that we don’t believe have been the focal point of the piece before this production.”
As they watched rehearsals, Lyons and Clark agree they became increasingly haunted by how relevant the story remains. They hope audiences connect with it in new ways.
“You may call yourself into question about how you view things or think about things,” Clark says. “And I think there are other moments that will leave you with a bit of hope about how to move forward, for all of us to be able to come together and look inside ourselves and check our own humanity about how we listen, how we interact and how we perceive each other.”
Mary Houlihan is a Chicago-based freelance writer.