At several points during Stefanie Batten Bland’s “Look Who’s Coming to Dinner,” which is being performed by her Company SBB this week as part of the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University, audio clips from the similarly titled 1967 film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” were played. Most powerfully, late in the dance-theater piece, Sidney Poitier’s character from that movie was heard standing up to his father, giving an impassioned speech that ended with him exhorting, “You’ve got to get off my back!”
The main theme of that movie, about a young interracial couple and the resistance they meet from their parents and others, takes on broader meaning in Bland’s work, whose world seems to be divided up into those who have been invited to sit at society’s metaphorical table, and those who have not. The dancers strive mightily to fit in and be accepted — going as far as to wear big plastic smiles and subject themselves to demanding calisthenic routines, or painful-looking contortions — but are often ostracized, harassed, even arrested. The struggle never ends.
The table themselves are turned on their side, signifying shut doors, or walls to be scaled, or mirrors (showing the dancers’ shadows). The interracial couple of the movie is reinvented as a same-sex couple, tenderly holding each other as they make their way out into the world.
Claire Gieringer, Mio Ishikawa, Nando Morland, David Lee Parker, Ryan Rouland Smith, Rachel Watson-Jih and Latra A. Wilson are the dancers (credited as Collaborating Dance Artists in the program). “Look Who’s Coming to Dinner” was originally presented in 2019, and Bland has added references to the pandemic, comically altering lyrics as one dancer sings the Aretha Franklin hit, “Respect” (“sock it to me” becomes “shot it to me,” for instance). A bit has also been added in which the dancers, at the start of the evening, take off their COVID-preventing masks, but do it so slowly it adds a touch of portentous mystery to the evening.
Not on the stage itself but clearly visible to all audience members, keyboardist Paul Damian Hogan generated atmospheric sounds throughout the piece and played — ironically, given all the angst in the dancing — the melodically cheerful “Glory of Love,” a Bing Crosby hit from the 1930s that was also heard in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
“Look Who’s Coming to Dinner” is a work that “pays tribute to those who paved the way toward acceptance in love and life,” Bland writes in the program.
That’s a timeless theme — equally fitting for the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s or our current struggle to create a just post-pandemic world — and Bland has created a work of timeless appeal around it.
Remaining presentations of “Look Who’s Coming to Dinner” will take place at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 5, 8 p.m. Nov. 6 and 3 p.m. Nov. 7 at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University. Visit peakperfs.org.
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