When playwright Todd Kreidler was asked to write a stage adaptation of the iconic 1967 film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” he was skeptical at first. “The first question I had was, ‘Why?’ ’’ he recalls. “I had two reservations. The first was just the prospect of bringing a film to the stage. The second was that it was of a time and place, and I wondered what resonance it has today.”
But actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner had no such qualms. He stars in the Huntington Theatre Company production, which begins previews Friday and runs through Oct. 5. “When I got the call, it was one of those ‘Let me think about it’ moments, but not really,’’ he says with a grin. “I knew I wanted to do it. One, it is ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.’ Two, it is Sidney Poitier’s role, and I grew up with Sidney Poitier as an inspiration. He’s been a pioneer.”
In the film, a young white woman brings home an accomplished African-American doctor and informs her mother and father that she intends to marry him. Chaos ensues as her liberal parents grapple with the concept of interracial marriage. It was a vehicle for Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (who died just days after filming ended). Poitier, who in 1964 became the first African-American to win an Academy Award for best actor, played the doctor. The film was radical in its time, simply because it raised the issue of mixed-race marriage. It opened just six months after the US Supreme Court, in its landmark Loving v. Virginia decision, ruled that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional. The film was still in theaters when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
The play is still set in 1967, yet Warner is convinced that it remains relevant today. “We are not in a post-racial America,” he says, citing the recent shooting of an unarmed, college-bound black teenager in Ferguson, Mo. “It is important for young people to understand the journey and the progress that has been made. But that progress has been slow.”
Warner, 44, who was named after Malcolm X and jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal, is best known for playing Theo Huxtable in “The Cosby Show” from 1984 to 1992. He was raised by his mother and manager, Pamela Warner, but he spent summers with his father, a civil rights activist who schooled him in African-American history from a very young age. “As early as 6, 7, or 8 years old, my father made me read books like ‘Great American Negroes,’ and I had to write book reports for him on people like Marian Anderson and Malcolm X,’’ he recalls. “It was my summer vacation, and I didn’t want to, but as I got older, I realized none of the other kids knew who these people were.”
Warner relates personally to many of the themes in the play. “My father used to tell me, ‘If you marry a white girl, I am not coming to your wedding,’ ’’ Warner recalls. “His position has since changed.’’
He also understands that the character of Dr. John Prentice in the play needs to stop seeking his parents’ approval. “As an adult, I had to let go of my mother at some point,’’ he says. “We were so close and she had been my manager for so long. I hate the term, but I think it has something to do with the mama’s boy syndrome. Oh man, we had huge blowouts two or three times,’’ he says. The two remain very close — she’s still his manager (he calls her his “chief of staff”), and she still gives him notes when she sees him perform.
‘Linguistically things have changed, and maybe our eyes have become more accustomed to racial difference, but I don’t think our minds and hearts are settled on it.’
In the film, the Prentice character had to be as close to perfect as possible to be palatable for audiences of the era. His fiancee, Joanna, describes him as “the youngest, most important doctor in the world.” He travels all over the globe discovering cures for diseases in Africa. As a guest, he leaves money when he makes a long-distance phone call. He is polite and unflappable. But Kreidler’s adaptation roughens the edges of this paragon of perfection. “In the film, Dr. John Prentice is so cool and even-keeled that butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth,’’ Warner says. “We see that calmness dissipate as the play goes on.”
Kreidler says he maintained many of the film’s iconic moments, but added subtle plot elements that speak to our era. The play focuses more on the generational divide than the film did, and it adds more depth to the African-American characters, including an African-American maid who clearly runs the house, as well as the doctor’s parents.
This adaptation has been in the works for some time. In 2007, a commercial producer approached director Kenny Leon, artistic director of Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre, about bringing an adaptation to Broadway. He enlisted Kreidler, who was a protégé of the playwright August Wilson, to adapt the film’s script (which was written by William Rose). But then the economy tanked, and Kreidler moved on to other projects (which included “Holler If Ya Hear Me,’’ a musical about rapper Tupac Shakur that closed in July after a six-week run on Broadway). Two years ago, the pair dusted it off and mounted it at True Colors and then planned a 2013 production at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. There is talk of a Broadway production down the road.
Leon bowed out of the Arena production when he got an attractive film offer, and he asked director David Esbjornson to step in at the last minute. Esbjornson had his share of reservations. He asked Leon if it was appropriate for a white man to direct the play. “I’m a straight, white guy who has directed plays that focus on race and gay culture,’’ he says. “There is a little bit of hubris in thinking I am the one to take this on, but I go back to the process. The rehearsal process becomes a microcosm for what should be happening in the world, which is an exchange of information.”
The play maintains an explosive scene in which a character describes the couple’s love affair as a “forbidden animal attraction.” Joanna’s mother, played by Julia Duffy, bites back. “If someone said that about my own daughter, I can’t even imagine what I would do,’’ Duffy says. “There are two things going on there: the unbridled racism and the aspersion on her child.” It is a turning point for her character in the play.
Duffy’s character, portrayed in the film by the indomitable Hepburn, has an iron backbone, but she still defers to her husband, which is a reflection of the era. There is a speech in which Joanna’s father, a self-made newspaper publisher, pontificates for pages, playing the omnipotent patriarch who controls all decisions. But Kreidler says he has tried to defuse the speech. “I bust open the idea that he somehow gets the last word,’’ the playwright says. “The way the play is set up, by the time he delivers that speech, nobody cares what he says. Everybody has already made up their mind.”
And for Duffy, the patriarchal speech resonates with her childhood. “This family and this woman remind me of, for lack of a better word, the Catholic women who surrounded me growing up in Minneapolis,’’ she says. “They were very strong and very influential in their families and communities, but they were comfortable deferring to their husbands. Those women had a lot to do with forming me, and I feel a kind of tribute to them in playing one of them.”
Duffy, 63, is best known for playing spoiled, ditsy Stephanie on “Newhart,” the television sitcom that ran in the 1980s. “It doesn’t get in the way of what I do now,’’ she says. “I was an ingénue, a very immature person, and nobody is going to write a role like that for me at my age.”
Warner, on the other hand, is followed around by his “Cosby” fame. People still call him Theo Huxtable when he is out in public, but he takes it in stride. “They still call Ron Howard Opie [from television’s ‘The Andy Griffith Show’], and it hasn’t affected his career,’’ Warner says. “I knew going into ‘Cosby’ that it was something I would have to deal with my whole life. It goes with having a show that was so popular and ran for so long. I think it gives me a slight advantage because it leaves more room for the pleasant surprise when I am doing other work.” He is a performance poet, has released a CD of his music, and is currently enrolled in two online courses at Berklee College of Music.
And both he and Kreidler are adamant that the subject is still provocative. “The racial issues that the piece touches on are still very much alive and relevant today,” Kreidler says. “Linguistically things have changed, and maybe our eyes have become more accustomed to racial difference, but I don’t think our minds and hearts are settled on it.” He says that in today’s age, the play can be seen through the lens of any cultural difference, be it a Palestinian and an Israeli or a gay couple seeking their parents’ approval to marry. He recalls a conversation with a young African-American man in Atlanta, who confided that his Nigerian girlfriend had to hide his existence from her father, who insisted she could date men only from her native land.
And unlike the film, the play doesn’t end with the white patriarch’s speech. The doctor gets the last word, and the two families sit down at the table, where the real conversation is about to begin.
Correction: An earlier version of this story was unclear about Pamela Warner’s continuing role as her son’s manager.