THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
Pit & Balcony’s Regional Premier of an Iconic Romantic Dramady Invites Audiences to Join a Persistent & Evolving Conversation
13th January, 2022 0
As they continue with their 90th Season Pit & Balcony is busily putting the finishing touches on the regional premiere of playwright Todd Kreidler’s updated translation of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which originally appeared as a 1967 romantic comedy-drama film produced and directed by Stanley Kramer, written by William Rose, which starred Sidney Poitier, Katherine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy in his last screen performance.
With performances scheduled February 4-6 & 11-13, the film was a groundbreaking work and one of the few at that time to depict an interracial marriage in a positive light, as interracial marriage historically had been illegal in most of the United States. It was still illegal in 17 mostly Southern states until June 12, 1967, six months before the film was released. Indeed, roughly two weeks after Tracy filmed his final scene and two days after his death, anti-miscegenation laws were struck down by the Supreme Court in the landmark case of Loving v. Virginia.
The plot of this masterful work centers around the character of Joanna Drayton, performed by, a 23-year-old white woman who returns from her Hawaiian vacation to her parents' home in San Francisco with Dr. John Prentice, a 37-year-old black widower played by, who have become engaged after a 10-day whirlwind romance.
Joanna's parents are Matt Drayton, a successful newspaper editor, and his wife, Christina, who owns an art gallery. Though both of the Draytons are liberal-minded, they are initially shocked their daughter is engaged to a man of a different race. Christina gradually accepts the situation, but Matt objects because of the likely unhappiness and seemingly insurmountable problems the couple will face in American culture.
Blindsided by their daughter's whirlwind romance and fearful for her future, Matt and Christina Drayton quickly come to realize the difference between supporting a mixed-race couple in your newspaper and welcoming one into your family--especially in 1967. It's not long before a multi-family clash of racial and generational difference sweeps across the Draytons' idyllic San Francisco terrace.
Directed by Jeff List, whom has directed several plays for Pit and most recently staged the remarkable production of Steve Martin’s Meteor Shower back in 2020, along with assistant director Trashan Donald, who also starred in Meteor Shower, together they are dealing with the many nuances of this new production that expands upon the translation of this powerful narrative for a new generation of audiences.
When asked how this play differs from the film and if there are specific themes the pair are striving to bring out as directors, both say they are following the script faithfully given the strength of its merits.
“The biggest difference between the stage & film version is that the Sidney Poitier character, Dr. John Prentice, has both of his parents coming to join the Drayton’s for dinner as well, and in the film they aren’t there, so this production includes both sets of parents,” explains List. “Other than that the script is pretty honest to the movie.”
“When asked to do this show it spoke to me because I am from mixed parents,” reflects Trashan. “My father is black and my mother is white and this was a pretty touch subject back in 1967 and even is sometimes today. The aspect of realism is important and we’re fortunate to have a real awesome cast bringing this thing to life. We’re only on our 12th rehearsal and seeing so much progress in the characters.”
“Auditions went very well and we only had to reach out for one role and the cast we’ve assembled is pretty incredible,” adds Jeff. “Moreover, while Trashan has a unique perspective on the narrative, I manage to see it through the eyes of Matt Drayton and his attitude, which I believe is wrong, but also find interesting when progressive thinking individuals are open to certain topics until they are confronted with something in their face personally. That’s when the characters and the conversation become really challenged.”
Providing an added dimension of authenticity, three key roles of Christina, Matt & Joanna Drayton are being portrayed by an actual real life family with Michelle Burke Thomas, Scott Thomas, and Sadie Thomas filling those roles respectively.
“Michelle brings screen experience to the table, as she lived out in Los Angeles for a while and has been a couple of things,” continues Jeff. “She also brings a lot of good ideas into the production; and with the role of Dr. John Prentice filled by Sharrieff Beamon, he brings a maturity to his performance that is pretty impressive. It’s not just memorizing lines but understanding scripts and making choices, and each of those two lead roles stand out to me right now.”
With the rest of the cast consisting of Leslie Larkins, Tim Maughtew, Nikolas Watford-Conrad, and Lisa Ray, according to Trashan, another important role is that of Matilda Binks, performed by Danyelle Hillman. “Danielle is the actor we had to search for who plays the role of Matilda, the Drayton’s house maid, and she’s brought so much energy and was made for this role because she’s doing so well with it,” adds Trashan. “Even though it doesn’t seem like a dynamic role, she offers the comic relief sometimes, so stands out to me as well.”
Do Jeff & Trashan feel that the play and movie have withstood the test of time in terms of being relevant to young audiences? When this film first came out I can remember being 12-years old and how much conversation it generated around the dinner table, so does it still carry this level of controversy and significance?
“I feel it’s held up well,” states Jeff. “It might not be as controversial because our modern sensibilities lend towards acceptance, but it’s still a conversation we need to have about race in America and how people are treated and being accepted from afar as well as up close and personal.”
“For me this was still written by a white playwright with a while male perspective, so even though it brings balance to an issue that can be personal and touchy, I think in that way I still occupies an important place in contemporary theatre,” he reflects. “That is to say, if this play were ever adapted by a black playwright, it might offer something a little different. But I like the fact how its relevance is adaptable.”
In terms of challenges presented by bringing Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner to the stage, Trashan references the delicate balance between opposing viewpoints. “My biggest challenge is confidence speaking up about different things I see,” she confess. I don’t want to interfere with the Director’s vision, but do want to offer my perspectives, which I find I do best by finding balance within myself.”
“As a director, something I try to do with most plays is let the actors create their characters,” emphasizes Jeff. “I cannot create the truth of these characters. I can address the lines and approaches, but it’s up to the actors to create and give life and meaning to that truth. I have to give them circumstances, not tell people how to think or behave, but give them the background behind the characters and not speak someone else’s truth.”
“I believe people that come to see this production will not only be entertained, but will also come away having a conversation with whomever that came with - family or friends - after they see it,” he concludes. “It’s one of those shows that you need to decompress from, but that’s also part of the fun with this play - to be entertained but to also walk away asking yourself: ‘How would I respond in this situation?”
“What I love about this play and the timing of this show is last year this country was in complete uproar about race,” reflects Trashan. “This play affords a vehicle to continue that conversation, but in an entertaining way. It’s not too heavy to make people uncomfortable, but opens up that dialogue and makes people think about what they would feel and how they would react.”
“With my own personal experience, I was raised around my blood family but don’t have a lot of the culture in my adult life I would have liked,” she continues. “It’s interesting because the odds were 50/50 on whether my one set of grandparents were going to accept me. I was the first brown child my Mom had and my grandparents kind of didn’t want to have anything to do with me until I was about 3 months old, so they had to let it simmer a bit.”
“They were Polish & Ukrainian and my Mom is always pushing the boundaries, so I love the fact this play tests those boundaries and pulls out these different perspectives. There’s this standard you have to hold yourself to in society, and while this topic is not as taboo as we like to think it is these days, even though this play is set in 1966 and progress has been made, there is still work to be done.”
The regional premier of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner will be held February 4-6 & 11-13th at Pit & Balcony Community Theatre. Performances are 7:30 PM with Sunday matinees at 3:00 PM. Tickets are $20 and available by phoning 989-754-6587 or visiting PitanBalconyTheatre.com
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THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)