Joanna Drayton (Bethany Anne Lind) and Dr. John Prentice (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) become friends in the hospital cafeteria and fall in love in 10 days in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” (Teresa Wood.)
The play, presented in the round, unfolds in the well-appointed home of newspaper publisher Matt Drayton (Tom Key) and his gallerist wife Christina (Tess Malis Kincaid). The year is 1967, and the Draytons pride themselves on their liberal world view when it comes to the war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement. Their principles are put to the test when their 23-year-year-old daughter, Joanna, flies home unannounced with relationship news. Joanna (Bethany Anne Lind) has fallen in love with Dr. John Prentice (Malcolm-Jamal Warner), a man 14 years her senior. She continues to reveal a series of surprises to her parents, beginning with John is African-American.
Matt, suspicious of John’s intentions, storms around the living room. When Joanna’s parents learn that John is an Ivy Leaguer and a world-renowned expert on tropical diseases, they have little choice but to discuss that for all their progressive stances, they do not want their daughter to be in a relationship with a black man.
Director David Esbjorson has assembled an excellent cast. Even actors in smaller roles shine. Housekeeper Matilda “Tillie” Binks (Lynda Gravátt) and assistant gallery director Hilary St. George (Valerie Leonard) stand out for their portrayal of strong-headed, opinionated characters. Audiences may recognize Gravatt from her Helen Hayes award-winning performance as Mable in Arena’s production of “Crowns.”
Lind and Warner work well together in their Arena stage debuts. Lind plays the perfect wide-eyed romantic, whose naïveté counter balances the good-natured, yet realistic, John.
The dialogue is a mix of serious and funny. Christina nearly faints when meeting John, prompting him to advise her, “Mrs. Drayton, I’m medically qualified, so I hope you won’t think it presumptuous if I say you ought to sit down.”
Perhaps one reason the play is easy to watch is the progress our country has made. In some homes, parents may not care about skin color, or at least certain skin colors for certain people. What would the reaction be today if the boyfriend was Muslim? Or an illegal immigrant? Or both?
What if John Prentice was Jessica Prentice? Or John Prentice was a blue collar worker without a college degree? The storyline is just as relevant today as it was in the 1960s.
The script exemplifies — and also highlights — the role the arts play in breaking down social barriers. For example, Matt’s friend quotes the Beatles “We Can Work it Out” when told about Joanna’s relationship.
Keep in mind the film came out the same year as the Supreme Court heard Loving v. Virginia, the case of an interracial couple who challenged Virginia’s laws banning marriage between blacks and whites. The Court ruled that state bans on interracial marriage were unconstitutional.
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is roughly two hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.
Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., presents “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” through Jan. 5, Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday performance begin at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances start at 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m. Weekday matinees are at noon on Dec. 10, Dec. 11 and Dec. 18. Tickets are priced between $40 and $90, with discounts for students and others. For more information, call 202-488-3300.
Megan Kuhn is a financial literacy advocate by day and a theater fan
by night. One of her favorite possessions is the red jacket from “Dead
Man’s Cell Phone” that she purchased at a costume sale at Woolly