“The adaptation for the stage departs from the film in a few distinct ways, but the fact remains that this play is a story oft repeated. A story that has crossed a continent, a memory that made its way into the hearts of a generation…”
I invite you to conjure a memory. Try to think of a story you find yourself returning to often, something that has stuck with you. The sort of thing that comes up at dinner parties or family functions—a shared experience. Now think about how that memory makes you feel. Is it warming or chilling? Do you feel comforted by this memory, or is a story of foreboding? Is it a memory that serves as a cautionary fable, a mistake never to make again?
There is an unforgettable event, an exciting notion, or an intriguing memory behind most great stories—and of course, there is a tale behind this one as well. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner film director Stanley Kramer recalls a conversation with screenwriter William Rose in his biography, Stanley Kramer: Filmmaker: “… As we walked, he told me a story, mostly a comedy, about a white South African man, a liberal, whose daughter falls in love with a black guy. I said, ‘Geez, we ought to set the story here, in this country, in this background … I thought to myself, ‘What a sorry sight to see a frontline liberal come face to face with all his principles right in his own house.”
Kramer knew exactly who he wanted to play the role of this reticent patriarch. Spencer Tracy signed on, then Katharine Hepburn, and quickly thereafter Sidney Poitier. All three stars committed to the project before Rose had written any lines of text. What was it in this story that each actor saw, what strong memory did it evoke? Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was an historic tale, even in its own time.
Kramer produced his first film in 1942, and William Rose adapted his first screenplay in 1948; their take on racial politics in 1967 was tinged with the nostalgia of a bygone era (perhaps most effectively illustrated in the groundbreaking political and cinematic influence of the other members of the Best Picture class of 1968: In the Heat of the Night, The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, and Doctor Dolittle). This nostalgia is marked most clearly in the lack of intersectional foresight (or the success of a particular liberal hegemonic ideology) of the tale. Though Dr. Prentice is embraced as a part of the family at the end of the film, the image of the black maid, Tillie, still standing on the margin, is the haunting final figure.
When playwright Todd Kreidler and stage director Kenny Leon took up the task of adapting Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner about a decade ago, they too had a sense that this was a story worth retelling. The adaptation for the stage departs from the film in a few distinct ways, but the fact remains that this play is a story oft repeated. A story that has crossed a continent, a memory that made its way into the hearts of a generation: the image of a Black man on a patio looking out over San Francisco Bay. But what of all of those other images that filled screens in 1967? Images of cities burning, of war, of LSD, of a summer of love played alongside the story of Dr. John Prentice and Joanna Drayton. Those stories have their place in our memory, but they are not the story we revisit today. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is in that world, but not of it.
Return to your personal memory. Let it sit with you as you take in this production. Imagine Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner as its own type of cultural memory. What makes some images, experiences, or narratives worth returning to? What about the actual event gets smoothed over and rubbed out over time? I invite you into this examination of memory, and how that memory makes meaning. I invite you to ask the question alongside us: why is this the memory we return to? ■
Todd Kreidler’s stage adaptation of the classic film runs March 15-April 15. Learn more.