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Court Theatre Holds Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner up to the Light

“To sit with the piece in a live setting is to become unsettled that these conversations are still so relevant.”

Photo: Courtesy of Court Theatre

Up next in our series of interviews with notable, in-the-know locals: Director Marti Lyons and Associate Director Wardell Julius Clark of Court Theatre. Their production of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is now playing.

How does your production differ from the 1967 film?

Lyons:We made the choice to cast several of the roles younger than is specified. There’s a generational conversation happening within the piece that feels relevant to today—that once the “older generation” has died out, everything will change and progress.

How do you package this story about an interracial couple in the ’60s for a modern audience?

Clark:With Loving v. Virginia in the Supreme Court, 1967 was a pivotal moment in American history around interracial dating and marriage. And as we look at interracial dating in a 2018 context, the problems that Joanna Drayton and Dr. John Prentice face in 1967 are not unlike problems interracial couples face [today]—maybe even to a larger degree. We’re interested in what love means in the face of the obstacles that exist in American racism.

Lyons:It’s haunting and harrowing to realize how relevant the conversations in the piece still are, not just around dating but around race in America, gender in America, [and] class in America. To sit with the piece in a live setting is to become unsettled that these conversations are still so relevant in an immediate way.

Did you think about the script differently after the success of Get Out?

Clark:We’re huge fans of that movie, and it’s hard not to know that that film is in our cultural zeitgeist right now—this huge, psy take on the idea of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. But for our production, not necessarily. Our biggest thing is the title of the play. In ours, it’s “Surprise, the parents are coming to dinner,” whereas in the film it’s literally just the idea of a black person coming to dinner.

Lyons:Get Out is clearly inspired by this movie, but the exercise we’ve undergone is slightly different: dusting off an artifact and looking at it in a contemporary context. It’s along the lines of holding something up to the light and seeing what reflects back.

Tillie Binks, a black maid who works for the Draytons, is an awfully dated character in the film. What’s her significance in the play?

Clark:One of the original ideas I had was looking at a slightly younger Tillie’s dynamic with Dr. Prentice. ​

Lyons:The original play presents this idea that everyone is sitting around the table having a conversation to reach a solution for the progress of humanity. But of course, Tillie is not at the table. Even if Tillie is a contemporary of Dr. Prentice, what is the journey that it takes to get Dr. Prentice to the table, and what does it mean for Tillie to be left behind?

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