by Ryan Maxwell, Directing Assistant
The Joanna of the 1967 film is a bit of a conundrum and a cipher. Without warning, she surprises her liberal white parents when she brings her black fiancé home to their fine house on a hill in San Francisco, and then invites her future in-laws to dinner. Although she sets these events in motion, it is her father and fiancé who set the conditions of the conflict and how it will be resolved. Once she drops the initial bombs, Joanna spends the rest of the film packing or perched on a couch cushion, listening attentively as her future is discussed and dictated by the men in her life. The film gives her certitude and willfulness, only to leave her effectively powerless.
The film’s presentation of Joanna was part of a larger calculation made by director/producer Stanley Kramer and screenwriter William Rose. They reasoned that if the central couple (played by Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton) was supremely attractive, intelligent, respectable and deferential to their elders, then the only reason any of their parents – or anyone in the audience – would have to object to their marriage would be race.
In an epicenter for political involvement and consciousness-raising such as San Francisco of the late 1960s – a world of social movements and activism on the part of young people, women, and people of color - the film presents a Joanna who barely shows any understanding of why people might not approve of her choice of husband. While Kramer’s and Rose’s formulaic approach to the characters and plotting of the film make the success of the central relationship an inevitability, it robs the story of much constructive discord. As artists and audience members, we want characters that don’t do everything to make everyone comfortable. We want conflict and rough edges, tough love and misunderstandings.
Throughout rehearsal, director David Esbjornson encouraged the cast to investigate and question their characters and the world of the play. Together with playwright Todd Kreidler, the cast went through the script looking for places in the story where we could delve deeper and flesh out the conversation about race and prejudice in the play.
In the case of Joanna, we looked for scenes where she was treated as a fragile child, or where information was withheld from her. We also found opportunities for her to hold the other characters accountable for their actions. We looked at who Joanna really was – what formed and informed her personality. At the same time, we were careful not to let the rest of the characters dismiss her as a silly, impulsive, naive girl. Which, even in the movie, she is not. She’s 23.
In act two, Joanna confides to John that she hates when her parents call her Joey; that “the Joey they’re talking to is someone else.” She is. Joey is the girl you see in the film – Joanna is the woman you see on our stage. None of this is to say that we created an entirely new character in place of the Joanna from the film. We’ve simply filled in the picture begun by Kramer and Rose fifty years ago. Where the film’s Joanna was willful, we brought in power. She was already loving. We added passion. Her undeniable intelligence is now backed up with wisdom.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner has always been the story of what happens when unknown people unexpectedly show up in your living room. The attention paid to Joanna’s character – in not allowing her to be easily cowed or dismissed, in paying close attention to how she’s described by others and how she describes herself, in making her fully an adult Joanna instead of the infantilized Joey – adds a layer of meaning to the title. For the Draytons of our production, perhaps the most unexpected guest at this dinner party is their own daughter.
(Photo: Bethany Anne Lind as Joanna Drayton in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater November 29, 2013-January 5, 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.)