KEN NEIL HAILEY says he’s the luckiest person in the world.
The Savannah Repertory Theatre Artistic Director is celebrating a fabulous first year of professional theatre. And while Savannah Rep has made its Industry Drive play shop a true home in advance of its second season, Hailey has yet to fully move to Savannah—and he’s loving it.
“I get to live in Savannah and New York! I’m spending my time half and half, and it’s the best life ever,” he gushes.
Hailey and his collaborators brought years of Big Apple know-how to Savannah last year and formed an equity contract small professional company. The group’s debut season included classic comedy The Importance of Being Earnest, the cult favorite Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, and Jaston Williams’ Greater Tuna.
Hailey and company got to know Savannah and its vibrant theatre community in those early productions, and now they’re set for a stellar second season.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner opens on October 12, and Savannah Rep holds the unique honor of being the first small professional theatre to produce the show.
“So far, it’s only been done by very major regional theatres,” says Hailey.
When directing a play based on a film, Hailey typically prefers for his actors to treat the script as a stand-alone work. In this case, he encouraged the cast to sit down and view the 1967 film.
“The fascinating thing about this script is that it’s a very clear adaptation of the film,” he shares. “But there are a lot of differences that have been worked in where it points out, since 1967 when the film came out and when it’s placed, how far we’ve come with racial attitudes. And how far we haven’t come.”
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was pretty radical at the time of its release. In it, Joanna Drayton (Katharine Houghton), the white daughter of progressives Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy) and Christina Drayton (Katharine Hepburn), returns home with her new fiancé, John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), who is African-American. All their lives, the Draytons taught Joanna the importance of racial equality, but her engagement is initially upsetting to them.
To see an interracial couple on the silver screen and in a positive light was deeply rare for 1967—at the time of the film’s release, interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 states.
In his 2013 stage adaptation, Todd Kreidler fleshes out characters that he felt deserved a little more time in the spotlight. Film viewers never saw Tillie, the African-American maid in the film, change her mind about Joanna and John’s engagement. Initially, she believes that John is trying to “get above himself” by marrying a white woman and disapproves of the romance. In Kreidler’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Tillie, like many other characters, comes around.
Additionally, John’s mother “sits backseat to her husband” in the film, as Hailey puts it. In the play, she “takes the reins.”
The cast is an eclectic bunch of regional and local talent. Madison Ringley, who recently moved to Savannah from Seattle to earn a master’s degree at SCAD, stars as Joanna. Christopher Chukweuke, a professional film actor from New York, takes on the role of Dr. John Prentice.
Nancy Daly will be played by Hilary St. George, a Savannah native who starred as Dementia in the original GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.
Regional actor Mark L. Colberson, who came all the way from North Carolina to audition stars as Matt Drayton.
Locals will recognize Chris Bass of Savannah Children’s Theatre, starring as Monsignor Ryan, and Beth Durodoye, a professor and counselor at Georgia Southerm, who makes her stage debut as Mary Prentice.
“We’ve got a really good group this time,” says Hailey. “We want to be a stepping stone company into professional theatre for actors.”
Audiences at Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner will be treated to a new, redesigned space in the former Dollhouse Productions.
“We’re getting our lights in and the stage revamped,” Hailey explains. “We’re keeping it as a black box theatre open format space. For [Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner], literally, the audience is in the living room.”
Savannah Rep has lots of excitement in store for its second season—stay tuned for Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, Lieutenant of Inishmore in spring, and Pumpboys and Dinettes, a musical written by Tybee Island’s own Jim Wann.
As Savannah Rep continues to grow, Hailey knows he, Company Manager Jennifer Bishop, and Technical Director Erik Bishop made the right choice in choosing Savannah as their new home.
“I am very committed to keeping this going,” he says. “It’s very much my, Eric, and Jennifer’s ballgame. We keep ourselves busy, we have a home base, and we absolutely love this city.”