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January 29, 2019

TRIAL BY RACE

by Ann Greer

“Twelve Angry Men,” written by Reginald Rose in 1954, is the granddaddy of courtroom dramas.  Perry Mason, Judge Judy, and many others owe him a debt of gratitude.  Henry Fonda played to great acclaim the pivotal role of Eighth Juror in the 1957 film.

Sheldon Epps, who directed the play now at Ford’s Theatre, following a 2013 production at Pasadena Playhouse in Los Angeles, also owes a debt to Rose.  “Twelve Angry Men” gave Epps an opportunity to explore how race figures into life and death decisions.  He cast six black and six white actors, who portray members of a jury considering whether to convict a young man for murder.


Erik King (Juror Eight, standing) and the cast


“The Trayvon Martin verdict and President Obama’s direct comments on the issue of race heightened the racial conversation, and prompted me to do something on stage that reflected it,” Epps said.  “The casting brings out the subtext in the script’s references and language, and makes it more contemporary.  It’s important to be reminded that these issues have not gone away.  The legal system is troubled, especially for people of color.  Certainty is a dangerous thing – both in a jury room and for our country.”

As the play begins, the 12 jurors are sequestered following a trial in which a teenager is accused of killing his father.  One of the six black men, Juror Eight, alone questions a guilty verdict.  He presents several points to support his view, gradually casting similar doubt among other jurors.  At one point, all six black jurors vote not guilty while the six white jurors vote guilty.  It’s gripping to watch the debate continue among the 12 men, with a resolution that is both predictable and uplifting.  



L-R: Eric Hissom (Juror One), Michael Russotto (Juror Three), Erik King (Juror Eight)

Interestingly, the script is not specific about the teenager’s race, but because of the racial makeup of the cast and indirect comments made by jurors, it is almost impossible not to make that assumption.

“I didn’t start out to cast six black and six white actors,” Epps commented, “but I realized it was an interesting and exciting theatrical moment to explore.  There are times when we are divided along racial lines, and it’s fascinating to see how the jurors get beyond that.  I have been accused of casting the black guys as good and the white ones as bad.  But at the end, they are all heroes.”
 


Cast of "Twelve Angry Men"


Epps got permission to make minimal changes to the script.  He found it sad that the prejudice reflected in some of the original speeches makes them sound like they were written yesterday.  He called horrifyingly untouched an extended, emotional speech in the second half of the play, delivered by Tenth Juror, a working class, bigoted white man.

“We discussed in rehearsal how we literally had heard those words in Charlottesville,” he added.

Epps said audience reaction has been similar in LA and DC.
 


Cast of "Twelve Angry Men"


“A lot of people have seen the film or play, and they know how it’s going to come out.  Still, there are moments of tension, and tension in the audience that comes from that,” he explained.  “Then relief and celebration come at the end.  It’s a tough journey, a grueling process, for all of us.”


“Twelve Angry Men,” is now playing at Ford’s Theatre through February 17, 2019.  For tickets go to fords.org or call 888-616-0270.

Photos by Scott Suchman.
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Ann Greer has covered culture in the DC region for The Washington Post, Capitol File magazine, and WAMU-FM, among others.  She was the first online theater critic in the DC region, for AOL Digital City Washington.

 




Posted at 12:11 PM

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