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‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ at Court: Facing black-white world, love in intense beige

Submitted by on Apr 5, 2018 – 9:42 pm

Review: “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” by Todd Kreidler from the screenplay by William Rose, at Court Theatre thru April 15. ★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson

On the one hand, there’s something quaintly anachronistic about the film-become-play “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” now occupying the stage at Court Theatre in a production co-directed by Marti Lyons and Wardell Julius Clark that is faintly, curiously charming.

On the other hand, one might reasonably ask whether the acceptance, or perhaps novelty, of white-black marriages has changed all that much since Sidney Poitier showed up at the home of those outspoken liberal parents portrayed by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in the 1967 movie.

To what degree we’re still hung up on skin tone probably depends on where we live. Here in deep blue Chicago, I suspect it’s much less an issue that it is in ruddier parts of the country. In any case, seeing Todd Kreidler’s stage adaptation of William Rose’s screenplay brought to mind Warren Beatty’s wry line in the 1998 film “Bulworth” (toned down a bit): Maybe everybody should just copulate with everybody else until we’re all beige.

Half a century on, what remains fundamentally engaging and imperishably true about the story is that the parents on both “sides,” as it were, harbor the same concerns for their kids: that if this privileged white girl and her somewhat older, previously married and highly accomplished black boyfriend, a doctor celebrated for his research in Africa, go through with their plan to marry, their mutual commitment will be put to the test by a society that can be very harsh and judgmental.

At the same time, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” sets before us the eternal conflict between parents and their kids. Headstrong young Joanna Drayton (Bryce Gangel) – who hates her parents’ nickname Joey — has been raised to assess other people by their merits, not their color, and she’s appalled when her parents recoil at her announcement that she’s going to marry a black man, Dr. John Prentice (Michael Aaron Pogue).

The doctor, thirtysomething and already famous, cannot escape the perpetual second-guessing of his father, who worked two jobs, blah-blah-blah, to make sure his son had it better than he did. The good doctor doesn’t want to hear it any more, and finally offers the sharp rebuke that of course his father worked his rear off for his child: That’s what a father is supposed to do!

Still, the handsome young Sidney Poitier – or indeed the handsome young Pogue – notwithstanding, the story’s enduring fascination centers less on these hell-bent young people than on their parents, both sets. Indeed, the lines are drawn between the pragmatic fathers on the one side and the romantic moms on the other.

Messrs. Drayton (Tim Hopper) and Prentice (Dexter Zollicoffer) view each other as the only rational people in the room: These kids are asking for a heap of trouble. She will always be a white woman in a white world, and never minding his marvelous achievements, this black man will always be black. It isn’t just a bad idea; it’s madness. While Hopper’s theoretically broad-minded fellow dances around the issue, trying not to overplay his hand, Zollicoffer’s angry dad seethes from the moment he walks in on the setup.

You might say the Draytons’ refined, wealthy household (a gorgeous abode in, um, white designed by Scott Davis) is embodied in the person of wife and mom Christina Drayton (the droll, confident and then thoroughly stunned Mary Beth Fisher). Already aware of the situation when her husband joins the party late, Fisher’s nearly apoplectic Christina advises him that it feels easier if you’re seated.

Fisher’s opposite, as the dazzling doctor’s mom, is the gentle Jacqueline Williams, who for a long opening stretch has almost nothing to say. When the black woman finally speaks, it is to advocate a surprising position: that young love will always triumph (hear, hear! chimes in the girl’s mom), and that it’s clear to her that these two crazy kids love each other. Mrs. Prentice’s husband isn’t necessarily buying it, but at least he calms down enough to come to the dinner table.

Which brings me to two other delightful members of the cast: Dan Waller plays a practical, warmly humored Catholic priest who’s a longtime friend of the Drayton family and a restraining influence on dear old Dad.

And then there’s the Draytons’ black maid, a show-stealing turn by Sydney Charles that is nothing short of grand larceny. Stern, laconic, officious, all-seeing, Charles’ protector of the family and keeper of the house is an all-season keeper of a performance. I came away thinking the real supporting roles were all the others.

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