Billed as a dramatic comedy starring Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? first hit theaters in 1967. In it, Joanna Drayton meets Dr. John Prentice (Poitier) on vacation in Hawaii. They fall head over heels in love and get engaged, and she takes him home to meet her parents, who in spite of their liberal ideals are troubled by the relationship. His parents also come to meet his fiance and her family, and they have no idea Joanna is white. They're troubled by the relationship as well.
In 1967, interracial marriage was illegal in 17 states until the Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia (June 12, 1967) outlawed bans on interracial marriage. The film about a young couple confronting their parents' prejudices injected a personal story into the civil rights debate. This week, that drama is back in the spotlight as Tommye Myrick directs a new stage adaptation of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? at the Joy Theater.
Although state bans on interracial marriage were struck down, Myrick says individual attitudes have been slower to evolve.
"There's only one thing that has changed in this country since this movie came out in '67," she says. "It is now illegal not to marry mixed-race people. Our acceptance of an interracial couple — or our lack of acceptance — is still just as poignant, just as pronounced. We still look, we still stare, we still wonder. We still have our prejudices."
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? was adapted for the stage by Todd Kreidler from William Rose's Oscar-winning screenplay. Vicky Illk plays Joanna Drayton and Nicoye Banks is Dr. John Prentice, but the real drama comes from family feuds. Fireworks fly in the first meeting between her parents (Dane Rhodes and Janet Shea) and his parents (Harold Evans and Gwendolyn Foxworth).
What unfolds exposes racial attitudes, but it's also a story of husbands and wives and parents and children. Myrick is interested in the play's most intense moments, especially the scenes in which Dr. Prentice confronts his father over outdated ideas of marriage, and when the two mothers bond over their love for their children.
"It is a teachable moment," Myrick says of the internal struggles that ring true for audiences today. "Each and every one of these characters has to have that evolutionary process as it relates to their own personal feelings about race in this country."
Myrick credits her cast with the skill to deliver on these emotional moments. She's worked with most of the players before. She's especially happy to be working with Banks, whose most recent film, Woman Thou Art Loosed, was nominated for an NAACP Image Award. The ensemble also features multiple Big Easy Award winners, including Lifetime Achievement honorees Janet Shea, Harold Evans and Carol Sutton, who plays the Drayton family's maid, a turn reminiscent of her role in the 2011 civil rights drama The Help.
Myrick jumped at the chance to present the show at the Joy Theater, which reopened a year ago after being shuttered since 2003. While the space has hosted a variety of one-night-only music and comedy performances, Myrick is the first director to occupy the space for an extended run, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? marks the return of drama to a post-Hurricane Katrina-renovated Canal Street theater.
"I'd been looking at the Joy and what was happening with the Joy for a very, very long time," Myrick says. "I grew up in New Orleans, and I remember when Canal Street was the place. We used to dress up to go to Canal Street. It's important to bring the tourists and locals back to Canal Street the way it was, especially since Canal Street is the epicenter of New Orleans."
Despite some logistical problems created by Super Bowl and Mardi Gras activities downtown, Myrick and her crew worked hard to open in February to coincide with Black History Month.
As a former teacher, Myrick understands the power of art to educate, and she believes Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? is a teachable moment for those who don't know the history of interracial couples in America, or for those who might have forgotten it.
"There's one thing in life you cannot change, and that's history," Myrick says. "I was taught this by one of my teachers years and years ago, and I'll never forget it. Being able to see history, being able to hear history, can only happen through the arts."