Presented by Huntington Theatre Co
By Todd Kreidler
Based on the screenplay by William Rose
Directed by David Esbjornson
Review by Kitty Drexel
(Boston) There are certain conservative republicans that like to argue that racism is finally dead. They are deeply incorrect. It’s 2014 and racism is thriving in the United States of America. It affects everyone and everything. To get into the nitty gritty, please see this Wikipedia article which is currently very good. Who knows how long the populace will let it stay that way.
Racism is so prevalent in everyday culture that bigotry tainted events occur and most people can’t even see it. Take for instance, the couple sitting in front of me last night at the Huntington theatre that was patiently waiting for the show to start. An usher asked to see their tickets as there seemed to be some seat mix up with a couple in the aisle. The usher had intended to interrogate the seated couple and move them… until the standing couple pointed out that the usher was attempting to seat them in the incorrect row. The usher responded, “my bad,” and moved the couple to their seats. The seated couple was Black. The usher and the standing couple were White. The appropriated idiom circa 2004 was horrifying.
The couple seated in front of me deserved a real apology (and I said as much out loud because I am a precocious troublemaker). They also deserved the benefit of the doubt that they were in the correct seats. While they weren’t openly offended by what had transpired, my companion and I were. This is what systemic racism looks like. It is insidious and tries to hide in plain sight while polluting the world around you. The usher had good intentions when she disrespected the couple in front of us. Good intentions pave the road to Hell.
Casual racism in the seats aside, The Huntington Theatre is doing important civil work by producing Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. It is good that Huntington is forcing its mostly White audience of a certain age to experience dialogues opposing racism that actually include those affected by racism. It gives the Huntington an opportunity to expand its audience. Good! Keep going. The appreciative masses will fill the seats.
To appease the expectations of my audience: Malcolm-Jamal Warner is captivating as Dr. John Prentice. His performance of a man reconciling his adult identity with the person his family expects him to be is nuanced and deeply arresting. His command of the stage is striking. His is a very different performance from Sidney Poitier’s, but it is just as touching.
The entire cast is excellent. Anyone who can should go see Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The production values are high*, the acting is nuanced and exemplary, and the social commentary is stirring. The cast copes with the awkwardness of interracial marital negotiation with sensitive humor. We’re able to see two families grapple with their cognitive dissonance with respect and emotional commitment; the parents deliver appropriate educated cynicism; their kids are optimistic to an extreme that only young couples are capable of. Lynda Gravatt (Matilda Binks) is a hilarious voice of honesty. Patrick Shea (Monsignor Ryan) is a blessed angel of reason that these families need.
Life would be less painful if we could always chose the less dramatic, less traumatizing path. It would be easier if we could decide not to love someone who is different. It would be better if no one reacted to biracial couples or anyone who was different and harmful to none with hate, fear or violence. But life doesn’t work that way. We can’t choose who we love. We can only choose to embrace our happiness. The difficulties Dr. John Prentice and Joanna Drayton faced are still a harsh reality for many biracial couples. I can attest that it still is for my beautiful wife and I. No one wants to be equal despite their differences. We want to be equal and be different. Maybe one day, if we keep civil, respectful dialogue open, it will be that way.
*So all of the Huntington Theatre Co. sets are built on turntables now?