“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” now playing at Asolo Repertory Theatre is a perfect bookend to “West Side Story,” the tragic tale of star-crossed lovers of different racial backgrounds that opened the 2015-2016 season. In “Guess Who,” set at roughly the same time, a young nurse, Joanna Drayton (Ally Farzetta) brings a charismatic and accomplished doctor John Prentice (A.K. Murtadha) home from her travels to Hawaii to meet her parents Christina and Matt Drayton (Peggy Roeder and Mark Jacoby), an upper class couple from Nob Hill in San Francisco.
The surprise in this charming stage adaptation of the 1967 classic Sidney Poitier film of the same name is that Prentice is black, and each character’s reaction to his race demonstrates the uneasy tensions that existed after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed (as depicted in another tremendous Asolo production this season “All the Way.”)
Although relationships and marriages between people of different races are commonplace today, racial tensions seem stronger than ever. In fact, on opening night, we were blissfully unaware that a Donald Trump rally had been cancelled following the candidate’s unabashed stoking of these tensions throughout his campaign. Trump’s calls to “make America great again,” seem to be a wish that we would return to the era of “Guess Who” when only a man as accomplished as John Prentice could dare to cross the threshold of the Drayton household.
The message of this uniformly well acted, humorous, and utterly delightful production is that true love conquers all. Who better to play the young African-American doctor invited to this epic dinner, then A.K. Murdtha who played Martin Luther King Jr. in “All the Way?” And couldn’t we argue that King was fighting for not only a black man’s right to sit in the Oval Office, but also to be accepted at the family dinner table? In a climactic moment, delightfully perky yet forthright Joanna proclaims to her liberal lion father Matt that he always taught to treat everyone equally and that everyone deserves respect, yet she is forced to confront her father’s hypocrisy when his calls for diversity end at his doorstep.
As this play so aptly and beautifully demonstrates, even in 2016 as we are closing out our final year of the Obama era, it’s one thing to believe in civil rights and another to reach a level of full acceptance, and many Americans have proved less nimble in doing so than expected in the rush of excitement after Obama was elected. Traditionally, when elections conclude, we embrace the President whether or not we voted for him, yet so many, led by Donald Trump himself have sought to disprove his legitimacy in a way that we have never seen before.
All of these issues about attaining civil rights for all underlie the brilliant and inspiring production of “Guess Who,” which was pitch perfect in its performances led by the masterful Roeder as the even-keeled and magnanimous matriarch willing to stand up for her beliefs and her family and Jacoby as the loving father who confronts his own prejudices, the kind he has been crusading against as a newspaper publisher for so many years. Jacoby hits all the right notes as an older, accomplished man learning to accept change in the course of one day with the help of his beloved daughter.
Also noteworthy were Monsignor Ryan (William Dick), a delightful addition to the family dinner, who lectures his stubborn golf buddy Matt, with a twinkle in his eye and the occasional Irish tune to keep tensions at bay, as well as, my favorite performance turned in by Ernest Perry Jr., John Prentice, Sr., who wordlessly conveys his disgust by relentlessly burning his eyes into his son’s soul. Perry and Murdtha have perhaps the most significant exchange about the generational shift in the perceptions of race. Additionally, Tillie (Jacqueline Williams), the family maid, and Mary Prentice (Tyla Abercrumbie), John’s mother, each allow their overwhelming love for the young people they raised to overcome their skepticism of the budding romance.
This brilliant production is a very important installment in the five-year American Character project that provides the audience with an excellent vehicle through which to examine how far we have come and how far we still need to go to fulfill the aspiration of equality for humankind.