William Rose’s Oscar-winning screenplay for the 1967 Tracy-Hepburn classic “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is so literate and theatrical that most people assumed it was adapted from an existing play.
Not so. Rose won for best original script about a liberal white San Francisco couple faced with putting up or shutting up when their daughter brings home a black doctor to marry. The very-much-in-love young couple faces just as much opposition from his black traditionalist, don’t-rock-the-boat parents.
Now, nearly half a century later, a new stage version has been developed, with permission from the William Rose estate, by Pittsburgh playwright Todd Kreidler. Kreidler made a splash on Broadway earlier this year with his Tupac Shakur musical, “Holler If You Hear Me.”
And Wichita’s Forum Theatre is being allowed to present a limited-run regional premiere – opening Thursday in the Scottish Rite Center – before it is seen on Broadway.
“We’ve been following its progress since it premiered at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. It’s still set in the 1960s, but there are new reasons to bring it to the stage now,” says Kathryn Page Hauptman, Forum founder. “It’s particularly relevant because of all the conversations about race happening now in the wake of (the police shooting in) Ferguson, Missouri.”
Director Mark Mannette agrees that, even though an interracial couple doesn’t spark the same kind of shock or controversy it did in the 1960s, the story is anything but dated.
“We’ve come a long way, but Ferguson points out that we still have a way to go in understanding racial interactions,” says Mannette, who is director of theater at Newman University. “Today’s violence is a product of miscommunication and misunderstanding. A play like this is a way for people to examine their attitudes in a safer setting.”
Starring in Wichita’s version of the new play are Tom Frye and Gina Austin as Matt and Christina Drayton (the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn roles), a liberal newspaper publisher and his art gallery owner wife. Their daughter, Joanna, the product of their liberal teachings who brings home an unexpected fiance, is played by Chelsey Moore.
The doctor/fiance, John Prentice Jr., who is her perfect match in every way except one, is Lando Hawkins. Starring as his equally unnerved parents, John Sr. and Mary Prentice, are Robert Barnes and Karla Burns.
Gilbert Pearce is Monsignor Ryan, a golfing buddy of Joanna’s father who is a guest at the fateful dinner where the two sets of parents meet. Sheila Kinnard is Tillie, the Draytons’ maid, and Stephanie Dennis is Hilary, Mrs. Drayton’s gallery assistant.
The play will be staged in the round with a living room set designed and lighted for 360-degree views by Tyler Lessin. Aaron Profit is the furniture designer and props wrangler. Hauptman is doing the 1960s-era costumes.
While both sets of parents are initially opposed to their children’s planned marriage, there are as many different reasons for concern as there are parents, cast members say.
“Christine is shocked and flabbergasted at first. And then she is surprised at her own reactions because of what she has always taught her daughter,” Austin says. “Christine is elegant, intelligent, sensitive, caring and always wants what’s best for everyone. She wants everyone to be happy. So she is shocked by her own reaction and begins to doubt what she has always believed.”
For the bride’s father, says Frye, the problem is not his personal feelings but the expected reactions in the larger, outside world where, in 1967, it was still illegal in 17 states for blacks and whites to marry. The landmark “Loving v. Virginia” case that threw out anti-miscegenation laws came within six months of the movie’s opening.
“Matt is a self-made man who, as a young reporter, fought against racism and for civil rights. He says he doesn’t feel guilty for being concerned over the marriage, he’s just being realistic. He tells them that they will have no problem with him, but that they and their children will have problems in society. He wants to make sure they know that,” Frye says.
“Matt wants to give them the armor for battle, not for retreat,” Frye says.
Barnes says the groom’s father is perhaps the most opposed to the union, but for reasons that include personal sorrow. His son is a widower who lost his black wife and child in an accident, and the old man is still grieving the loss of that uncomplicated ideal.
“John Sr. is an educated man. He is a school teacher. But at 63, he is pretty much set in his ways,” Barnes says. “He likes Joanna as a person, but he doesn’t like the idea of her marrying his son. It’s hard for him to accept that his son would go outside the accepted norm and create a problem. He’s angry and embarrassed, and he ends up saying some ugly things.”
The groom’s quiet-spoken mother, while fearful of the unknown, is perhaps the most supportive of the young couple’s plans, says Burns.
“Mary bases her whole life on love. She tells the others that she doesn’t know the girl, but that she knows her son. She raised a good man who has made good decisions all his life, so why should this one be any different? She trusts the young couple to know their own hearts and souls,” says Burns, who notes that she gets inspiration for her portrayal from memories of her own supportive mother.
“Mary tells the other parents to remember the passions in their own lives. Ultimately, it isn’t what we want,” Burns says. “It’s what they want.”
If you go
‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’
What: Regional premiere of a new stage adaptation of the 1967 Oscar-winning screenplay about white and black parents reacting to their children’s plans to marry
Where: Forum Theatre at Scottish Rite Center, 332 E. First St.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Jan. 18
Tickets: Special half-price $11.50 for Thursday; $23 Saturday matinee and both Sunday shows; $25 for Friday-Saturday evenings. There is an optional catered meal before each show for $15 extra (12:30 p.m. matinees, 6:30 p.m. evenings). Call 316-618-0444 or visit www.forumwichita.com.