'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner' at Arena Stage Adds Humor to Time-Tested Family Drama

Eve M. Ferguson | 12/18/2013, noon
"Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner," now playing at the Arena Stage’s Fichlander Stage, revisits the drama that first came to ...

At this time of the year, family dramas tend to reach a fever pitch with gatherings at Thanksgiving and Christmas bringing folks together from their usual routines. "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner," now playing at the Arena Stage’s Fichlander Stage, revisits the drama that first came to light in the Sixties’ film of the same name, when Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier addressed the taboo issue of interracial marriage.

Based on William Rose’s 1967 screenplay for the film, the story has been revived for the stage by Todd Kriedler, starring Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who has grown up into a mature actor far from his days as Theo on “The Cosby Show.” This revival does not attempt to catapult the characters into present day, where interracial marriage is commonplace and no longer has the shock value that it did nearly 50 years ago. But the interplay of family members living their lives on their own terms has not changed, and this play addresses those tense moments with humor and forceful dialogue, taking on what was considered radical back then.

Playing Dr. John Prentice, the role immortalized by Poitier, Warner takes on the role of the accomplished African-American doctor who falls in love with and decides to marry the white, affluent Joanna “Joey” Drayton, (played by Bethany Anne Lind), a recent graduate of medical school abroad, who brings her fiancé home to meet her parents. The suave sophistication of Poitier’s depiction of the highly accomplished man is not fully captured by Warner. He does, however, inject candor and comedy into the role when he is confronted with the reality that his parents have also been invited to dinner, to his dismay. Joanna’s naïveté is evident when she fails to comprehend that Prentice’s parents may object to the union as strongly as hers so obviously do.

The new stage version of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” originally premiered in 2012 by Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre Company. For the Washington, D.C. debut, a few locally-known actors joined the original cast. Eugene Lee, who has played theater stages in the area since the ’90s, forcefully and convincingly takes on the role of John Prentice, Sr., who staunchly objects to the union of his son with a white woman. Although he is not playing the quintessentially stereotypical “angry black man,” the character voices his concern vehemently, fearing his son will erode all the accomplishments he has made, and that his father fought so hard to make possible.

Equally compelling is Mildred Banks, or Tillie, played by local Lynda Gravátt, who has both acted in and directed area productions, playing Mabel in "Crowns" and directing "Hair," "The Wiz" and "Dreamgirls" at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest.

Tillie’s initial mistrust of the doctor, we find out, stems from dealing with harsh racial conditions of the times. Fiercely protective of her employers, and Joey, whom she raised from infancy, it is her softening and eventual acceptance that turns the tide of disapproval. Along with the mothers, Christina Drayton (Tess Malis Kincaid) and Mary Prentice (Andrea Frye), the only sense of reason and open-mindedness falls on the priest, Monsignor Ryan (Michael Russotto), whose half-drunken truisms seem lost on Matt Drayton (Tom Keys) and John Prentice, Sr.