The Trump presidency has put the focus on America's white working class — witness the red-hot return of "Roseanne" — but on Twin Cities stages it's liberals who are being held up to a searing light.
This weekend the Guthrie Theater opens a new adaptation of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," the 1967 film about parental tensions around the engagement of an interracial couple. Also playing at the Guthrie is Danai Gurira's "Familiar," which revolves around the impending marriage of a Zimbabwean-American lawyer and her white fiancé from Minnetonka. And Harrison David Rivers' new play "This Bitter Earth," about a black/white gay couple, opens in two weeks at Penumbra Theatre.
In ways large and small, these plays are in conversation over issues that have roiled the soul of America.
"It's an exciting time to be an actor in the Twin Cities and to be engaged in such serious work," said Regina Marie Williams, a "Guess Who" cast member.
It also is enticing for audiences looking for meaty entertainment. "Familiar" has been playing to capacity audiences since its opening a month ago; the show closes this weekend.
"Guess Who" is by far the best-known title in the bunch. But it also provokes the most pointed question: How can a 51-year-old love story about an accomplished black medical expert (Sidney Poitier in the classic film) meeting the parents of his white fiancée possibly be relevant today?
The film was released the same year that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down legal prohibitions against interracial marriage in the famous case Loving v. Virginia. Todd Kreidler, who wrote this stage adaptation, said that Americans are not as far removed from that moment as they might like to think.
"If it was about the shock of people looking at this couple, that wouldn't be so interesting," Kreidler said. "It's about hypocrisy and the gap between how we see ourselves and who we really are."
The 'joy' of tweaking liberals
The white, upper-crust Bay Area parents in "Guess Who" — played in the film by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy — are clear about their staunchly progressive political values. The patriarch is a publisher of a paper with global reach.
"It's a particular joy when the liberal left is brought up short," said Guthrie artistic director Joseph Haj of the prejudices exposed in the play.
"It's not a middle-aged white moneyed conservative couple that have all of these problems with the fact that their daughter brings home an African-American doctor 12 years her senior," he said. "The thing works because you see this very progressive couple brought face to face with their own unconscious bias. They raised the kind of daughter who thinks it's great that she would bring home a black fiancé. And when she does, they're not cool with it."
Gurira's "Familiar" is the inverse of that situation, with a white man marrying into an African-American family of distinguished professionals. On the surface, the tensions arise from cultural differences among the bride's relatives. The playwright — herself the daughter of Zimbabwean professionals — intimated in a recent interview that the presence of the white fiancé forces long-dormant family issues to surface so that they can be dealt with, at last.
"At the core of the play, it is about grace, the idea of families forgiving each other and finding grace," Gurira said in a recent interview.
Theater provides perspective
Penumbra's "This Bitter Earth," which premiered in San Francisco last fall, reflects playwright Rivers' own experience: His husband, Christopher Bineham, is white, and the couple live with Bineham's parents in St. Paul.
The show's director, Talvin Wilks, said that in the same way history helps us to see complex issues with more clarity, theater can provide distance and the opportunity for reflection.
In the play, lovers Jesse and Neil "stumble into thinking that surprises even them," Wilks says. "When Neil says, 'My parents have a lot of black friends,' his black partner says, 'Really?' "
People who make that statement often believe it provides "some sort of immunization shot" against charges of racism, Wilks noted. But in this case it illustrates how the two lovers must overcome their own biases even as they face prejudice from outsiders.
In one scene the men banter playfully on the subway before kissing. Another rider reacts negatively, and the lovers want to ask him: Was it because of race, or the fact they are gay?
"Even if, as the scientists say, race is a construct, we still fall back into those places — society holds us in those places," said Wilks.
Surprisingly, it's the white partner in "Bitter Earth" who is more vocal against bigotry. In part that's because he fears for the safety of his lover at a time of frequent police killings of unarmed black men.
How 'Dinner' came to be
"Guess Who" playwright Kreidler is best known for his role as dramaturge and confidante to August Wilson. It was Kenny Leon, the director who helmed Wilson's last works on Broadway, who suggested that Kreidler adapt the film.
Kreidler said he was skeptical. "The film is about everybody reacting to a mixed-race couple — it's all reactive," he recalled telling Leon. Besides, it seemed so dated.
"Kenny challenged me and said, 'What if you have a conversation with the film and find a way to have it set in 1967 but not be about 1967, and use storytelling techniques to open it up?' " Kreidler recalled. He said he told Leon: "If this is going to be a play about hypocrisy, about generational differences, we should get to know the family before they open up the situation.
"Kenny went quiet, and then he said, 'Got you. You're in.' "
Leon had expected to stage it, but was away directing a movie when it premiered under David Esbjornson's direction at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage in 2013 with former "Cosby" kid Malcolm-Jamal Warner as star. (The Washington Post reviewer said it was "distinguished by a fine writing job, masterly direction and an excellent cast.")
Ironically, the "Guess Who" film influenced Jordan Peele's Oscar-winning horror movie "Get Out," which spun a fresh twist on the same scenario.
Kreidler preserved the iconic moments of the film while updating the story in significant ways: "I wanted to bring the doctor's parents forward — they were underwritten in the film." He also expanded the stock roles of Tillie, the black maid (played by Williams), and the liberal Monsignor who's a family friend. He wrote with specific actors in mind, he said, "which helped to dimensionalize them."
"Guess Who," "Familiar" and "This Bitter Earth" all bring issues to the fore in ways both comic and dramatic.
Humor is used to leaven situations that often, in retrospect, seem absurd, said "Guess Who" director Timothy Bond, an African-American who grew up in Northern California, where the play is set. He said the narrative strikes close to home.
"In the early '70s, I had some scenarios where I dated white women and faced the wrath of their parents," Bond said. "We all carry things that come out when we least expect them to. Theoretically, we are open to all kinds of things, until that thing comes home with your daughter."
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