Room at the Table
“David Esbjornson brings a striking contemporary perspective to classics that allow us to experience them in new and unexpected ways. After his astonishing production of All My Sons, I can’t wait for him to reveal the emotional and social immediacy of the ideas raised by this landmark film.”
– Peter DuBois
In adapting the iconic film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, playwright Todd Kreidler has created a portrait of race relations in America as intimate, provocative, and poignant today as the original was in 1967. In 1967, the movie revealed the hypocrisy of liberal minded intellectuals who accepted interracial marriage in theory but not in practice. Today, the play forges a connection between two conversations: the first tracks how far America has come in the last fifty years in its acceptance of interracial marriage, and the second focuses on recognizing the unspoken racial inequalities that still exist. As Kreidler says, “the question for me has always been how we keep it set in 1967 but not of 1967.”
Upon their return to San Francisco to announce their engagement, John Prentice, Jr., an African-American doctor portrayed in the film version by Sidney Portier, and Joanna Drayton, a young white college student, face rejection from Joanna’s parents. To add pressure to the evening, Joanna has invited John’s parents to fly up from LA. When the Prentices arrive, they also express their firm opposition to the engagement. The families argue about the challenges and obstacles the couple will face as they consider whether to support or interfere in John and Joanna’s relationship, all within the hours before dinner is served.
“Don’t fool yourselves. Whatever you talk out in this house on a hill tonight won’t change the hearts in homes across the country,” says John Prentice, Sr., criticizing the naïve hopes of the young couple and their mothers. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released in a decade that was defined by racial tensions, and the depiction of John and Joanna’s relationship pushed a private conversation into the public sphere. It joined highly publicized and controversial events such as the landmark Supreme Court case of Loving vs. Virginia or Time magazine’s decision to make the marriage of Peggy Rusk, daughter of Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and Guy Smith the cover of their September issue.
People who opposed interracial marriage saw the Secretary of State’s participation as tacit approval from Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. Ebony magazine wrote that “Secretary Rusk reportedly advised the White House of the forthcoming wedding, and his decision to escort his only daughter down the aisle even if political repercussions forced a resignation.”
Interracial marriage no longer poses the same challenges for couples like Peggy Rusk and Guy Smith. It is now legal to enter an interracial marriage everywhere in the United States, with South Carolina and Alabama being the last states to overturn their prohibitions in 1998 and 2000. A 2010 Pew Research study found that 8.4% of all current US marriages are interracial, up from the less than 1 percent in 1961.
Kreidler’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner encourages us to return to a shared past and to reflect on the reality of race relations in the present day. Even in a nation with a biracial president, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s multi-racial family still causes waves in the media. According to the Huffington Post, “he is apparently the first white politician in US history elected to a major office with a black spouse by his side,” and according to the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center, “black-white marriage remains the most unlikely racial combination in the US.”
This country where the personal is political, the choices of men and women like John and Joanna shift the perspective on race. The film was released to critical acclaim and placed the debate of interracial marriage at the forefront. This touching adaptation of an American classic brings forth an honest discussion about the challenges of interracial marriage, but more importantly, it serves as a powerful reminder that these conversations still have a place at our dinner tables.
– Sebastián Bravo Montenegro