Monday, April 16, 2018

Turning Back Time at Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

What's in a name (or a skin tone)? 


Photo by Dan Norman

If you happened to miss it amidst our unseasonable spring blizzard (and who could blame you?), the Guthrie Theater opened their stage rendition of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner last weekend. I imagine this was scheduled specifically at this point in the season as a contrast to Danai Gurira's excellent play Familiar, which sadly closed last weekend. Both plays discuss interracial relationships and the difficulties of introducing a partner to your family who is from a different culture than you, and both are highly worth watching.

Photo by Dan Norman

But while Familiar is (at its heart) about life in an immigrant family and the unique cognitive dissonance the internal identities of immigrants hold, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (Guess Who) is really about the external realities of existence itself. Rather than asking Who Am I?, Guess Who simply asks: Why? Why are our cultural expectations of relationships the way they are? Why are we expected to segregate ourselves? Why are our differences emphasized rather than celebrated? Why does anyone get to have a say in your relationship who isn't a part of the relationship itself? 

Photo by Dan Norman

Through a series of cringe-laugh-inducing vignettes, Guess Who (mostly) deftly navigates those questions in a way that lands a serious subject with a light blow. We see the happy couple radiate with love; we see their parents' utter dismay at their clear mutual interest; we see a satellite of other characters convincing the parents to trust their children despite all of their training to do otherwise. This is a script that is not afraid to have hard conversations in front of you, and there is a sense of voyeurism in watching the Draytons and Prentices navigate their dismay over finding themselves in a situation they could never have imagined before. 

Photo by Dan Norman

This story could easily be an uncomfortable mess without strong guidance, and Director Timothy Bond has assembled a rock star cast to help him deftly navigate the tricky material. Guthrie stalwart Sally Wingert is back as Christina Drayton. It's always tough to embody a role made famous by an actor as iconic as say, Katharine Hepburn, but Wingert makes it look easy with her expressive face and sharp wit. Speaking of inhabiting iconic roles, JaBen Early is marvelous as Dr. John Prentice. I was curious how they would put up this role that Sidney Poitier made possible; wisely, rather than trying to play Poitier, Early makes it completely his own. He has a modern, classy touch, and I thoroughly enjoyed his grounded performance. He's definitely a keeper. Regina Marie Williams is great here too as the Drayton's maid Tillie. Her role may seem insignificant, but to me, it's the crux of the entire show, and made stronger by Williams' adroit performance. Tillie is the bridge between all of these worlds; her intimate knowledge of the Draytons, her lived experience as a black woman in 1960s America, and her feet squarely planted with a black perspective living in a wealthy white world help us to the understanding that all of us can carry flawed perceptions, and all of us can overcome them. Williams does a wonderful job steering this story, and the show would be much poorer without her presence. 

Photo by Dan Norman

The rest of the cast is good too. Peter Thomson is a genuine comedic spotlight as Monsignor Ryan and often ironically voices the soundest reason of any character in the show. Greta Oglesby and Derrick Lee Weeden are profound as Dr. Prentice's parents Mary and John, respectively; their reaction, short but powerfully played here, is hard to watch but necessary. Maeve Coleen Moynihan is vivacious as Joanna Drayton, showing great chemistry with Early and a stark moral compass for the plot. And Michelle Duffy gets into her best Doloris Umbridge vibe whilst performing the sickening social climbing of Hilary St. George. 

Photo by Dan Norman

This set, designed by Matt Saunders, and the costumes, by Lydia Tanji, are just lovely. They perfectly set the time, and there is no shortage of detail to feast your eyes upon. The set remains in the exquisitely curated home of the Draytons for the duration of the show, and the instant opulence it evokes is engrossing. The costumes are classy and chic, and I wouldn't mind stealing more than a few of the looks on stage. The lighting design by Dawn Chiang adds a great level of dimension to the set, and keeps each scene feeling fresh as time passes. It's a great team effort, and meets many of the high production value productions I've seen at the Guthrie before. 

Photo by Dan Norman

I'm grateful to see this on stage as part of an increasing series of shows focusing on interracial relationships, which I have long felt receive short shrift in the cultural limelight. This kicked off with Penumbra's excellent Wedding Band, which I loved last fallFamiliar of course; and the upcoming (and locally written!) This Bitter Earth, also at the Penumbra and debuting in a couple weeks. Although interracial marriages recently hit an all-time recorded high, that level still sits at only 15% of all couples in the United States. People may be more generally comfortable with the idea of interracial relationships these days than they were in the 1960s, but that still doesn't mean they want them within their own families. It's really important to destigmatize these relationships, and I'm grateful to our local #tctheater community for working hard to talk about this issue. There are elements of Guess Who that directly correlate to my own experience of introducing partners of different races to my family (and vice versa), and although the situation in the show is dramatized, there are certainly several nuggets of truth to be found here that are quite relevant. 

Photo by Dan Norman

That being said, there are some things about this story that didn't age well, I thought, although this isn't the fault of the production itself. The conversation we see on stage is still vital, but the reception of it felt flawed. When Guess Who's Coming to Dinner first hit the silver screen in 1967, there were very few positive images of interracial relationships in popular culture, and the reception was as intense as you might imagine. Fifty years later, as with so many issues concerning race in the North (and particularly passive aggressively liberal states like Minnesota), we are able to watch a play like Guess Who and pat ourselves on the back for progress and an exceedingly judgmental eye towards the past without seeing the enormous amount of work left to do. This issue is beautifully explained in my first ever guest post back in 2016 (click here to read - it's a great summary from one of the smartest people I know), but it's something we need to talk about more. Interracial marriage is legal now, but the reception of such relationships is still problematic, and we need to do much better in general on directly closing the racial equality gap in all ways. I didn't get the sense from the laughs around me that the audience quite understood that; the point of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is to show how deeply all of us harbor prejudice and how actively we need to root it out. It's not enough to claim liberalism or charity donations or op eds in the newspaper; we need to be actively fighting racism in our every day actions and inner thoughts, and that takes unending, exhausting work that goes far beyond writing a signature in a chequebook. 

Photo by Dan Norman

To be clear: I would absolutely recommend seeing Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. The Guthrie has mounted an excellent production with a Grade A cast, and they hit all the right notes in the staging. There's a lot to learn from the attention to detail they paid, and I think anyone can enjoy it. I would only caution you if you go to use it as a great lens to consider your own thoughts about issues about race; you might be surprised what you turn up. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner runs at the Guthrie through May 27; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.