by Akeya Dickson
NNPA Washington Correspondent
ATLANTA (NNPA) – When the lights darken, the curtains draw open and a story unfolds on stage, the energy of theater actors arrests an audience’s attention in a way that the most dramatic film explosion cannot.
Such is the sentiment of acclaimed director Kenny Leon, who discussed the forthcoming world premiere of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” on stage during a luncheon on June 22nd in Atlanta at the National Newspaper Publishers Association national convention.
“When you come to the theater, you see actors in 3D. You don’t have to put on any funny looking glasses, you sit there and you watch life in front of you,” he explained during a panel discussion moderated by Creative Loafing reporter Edward Adams. “Live theater I think is more visceral, it’s most like us. It’s a mirror to us. It’s a different experience.”
Leon, who directed Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in “Fences” on Broadway and the 2004 staged revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” starring Phylicia Rashad, Sanaa Lathan, Sean “Diddy” Combs (and later the television version with the same cast), said that he loves film and television but theater is his preferred art form.
The former actor decided to briefly sidetrack from Broadway to debut the play in Atlanta with his theater company, True Colors Theatre, after falling out with the Broadway producers who initially approached him to direct it.
“The estate really wanted me to do it. So we allowed the rights to lapse, and when they lapsed, True Colors went after those rights,” he said. “And we got [them]. And now we’re allowed to do the world premiere of this play. It’s never been a play before, it was only a film. And now we’re doing it in Atlanta.”
The Tallahassee, Fla. native, who graduated from Clark Atlanta University, recently wrapped the production of the remake of “Steel Magnolias,” featuring Queen Latifah, Jill Scott, Alfre Woodard and two of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” actors, Rashad and Tory Kittles. Leon is returning to Broadway to direct “Fatal Attraction” and the Tupac musical, “Holler if Ya Hear Me.”
General Motors U.S. Vice President of Diversity Eric Peterson said in his introduction of the panel, “I think all of us will remember ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ many years ago with Sidney Poitier. It talked about diversity issues that, interesting enough, as much as things change, they stay the same. We’re still talking about some of those issues.”
In selecting what productions to stage, Leon explained that he picks plays that he thinks will have an impact and that won’t be forgotten as soon as people walk out of the door.
“I think that our country is really suffering from the sores of racism, slavery. I still think that we have a huge race issue in our country,” he said. “And I think when you look at this play, you won’t feel that the play is dated at all. You’ll feel that it’s alive and well. Especially in a country where someone can sit in the back [of Congress] and call the president a liar or where a young kid can get killed for wearing a hoodie.”
The original film was released in December 1967 and starred Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton as Dr. John Prentice and Joana Drayton, the young-in-love and recently engaged interracial couple. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn also starred as the young White woman’s parents. Earlier that same year, interracial marriage was still illegal in some states, until the Supreme Court ruling Loving v. Virginia overturned state laws banning interracial marriage.
Edwards lauded the film for forthrightly tackling the issue of racism.
“It’s one of my favorite films of the 60s,” he said. “It was one of the first conversations about integration.”
When veteran actor Tom Key, who plays the father and publisher of a progressive newspaper in San Francisco, heard that there might be a chance that Leon would be producing the play, he said he called him and told him “I know this man.”
Growing up as a “little boy in a big, white church in Alabama,” Key said that he was told that “Black people were descendants of Ham, and that’s why God had cursed them and that’s why they were supposed to be subservient.”
He said that he couldn’t read at the time but sensed that something was deeply wrong.
“And so I didn’t trust what I was hearing in church as the truth. When I went into theater, when I watched films and when I read stories and literature I thought this is the truth about the way that it is,” he said. “If we can listen to one another’s stories, we might understand what it’s like to be a global community. We’re not warring tribes. And that’s what we’ve got to get over. I think stories are our most powerful weapon.”
Kittles, who is also from Florida, said that he had the honor of meeting Poitier, but he wanted to bring his own vision to the play.
“I didn’t want to approach it from that place of going ‘Hey, I’m stepping into something that Sidney has done.’ I wanted to look at it as, ‘What do I think about this?’” he said. “The issues are right in our face still to this day. I think that’s the important part of any great production in the theater, that you can take an issue that we all deal with and that we talk around but never really talk about. It puts it in your face.”
Andrea Frye, who plays the role of Tillie, the maid who works for the White family and helped raise Joana, was forced to explore the source of the anger that her character grappled with for most of the story.
“The play is very different from the movie on a lot of levels, but Tillie still hates John from the moment he walks in the door, and I had to figure out where that was coming from,” she said. “She had a whole lot of self-hatred. We felt at moments that she cared more about these White folks that she worked for than she did herself.”
Leon also urged Black publishers to improve their coverage of the arts.
“The challenge I’m having on Broadway is that we have Black stories, but we don’t have Black press,” he said. “It’s very hard to keep those stories running. So we have a big challenge on Broadway, because it’s dependent on what the critics say about the stories. But most of the critics are not African-American. But that’s a whole different panel.”
He also explained what motivates him to share stories with the world.
“I found that directing was my passion,” he said. “I think I have a responsibility as a storyteller to tell African American stories or those stories that we would make us whole in the context of a broader community.”
The play will open July 10 and run through July 29 at Georgia State’s Rialto Center. For tickets, order online or call 1-877-725-8849.