Sheldon Epp’s Twelve Angry Men, his directorial debut at the historic Ford’s Theatre, promised a present-day take on the 1954 legal drama that follows jury deliberations in the murder trial of a teenager accused of killing his own father.
In interviews leading up to the show’s opening, Epps noted that his production, first staged at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2013 where he served as artistic director for 20 years, was inspired by the shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin and the racial justice issues brought out by the subsequent trial. In re-reading the script, Epps remarked that the storyline was just as relevant today—something you might “see on the nightly news”—and that the look and feel of his DC production would hold up a modern-day mirror to the classic play.
While the race of the characters isn’t strictly written in to the script, the earliest productions of the play—and most notably the 1957 film version starring Henry Fonda—featured a jury of 12 white men deciding the fate of a lower-class (in the film, Puerto Rican) teenager. Epps shakes up this formulation by introducing a more diverse jury, equally divided between 6 white men and 6 black, to decide whether a (heavily-implied to be black) teenager raised in a New York ghetto should get the death penalty.
But that’s about where the “modernization” ends. The set design (Stephanie Kerley Schwartz), consists of towering pillars of gray concrete connected by large, institutional metal grates and centers on a large metallic table. Oversized overhead lights cast a glaring fluorescent light, adding to the stark, almost prison-like vibe that, if anything, is silent as to time period. On close inspection you might note a few modern appliances, but these do little to evoke a present-day feel. Not one of the characters casts furtive glances at a smuggled-in cell phone or smart watch. No ear buds dangle from the necks of the 20-something men.
And (while no expert on men’s fashion) the costumes (Wade Laboissonniere) only further a 1950’s vibe—the older businessmen in high-waisted, pleat-front trousers and wide, striped ties; the younger “hipper” Madison avenue “ad man” in a slim cut suit with tapering trousers and slicked back hair. The blue-collar workmen sport jeans and solid-color shirts and sweatshirts devoid of any of the ubiquitous brands and logos of today’s activewear.
Still, the biggest stumbling block to a modernized Twelve Angry Men is its language. With the exception of a few contemporary, racial epithets flung in the play’s more heated moments, Epps remains faithful to the original script, right down to its Jackie Gleason-esque gaffs on baseball and defunct 1950’s ad agencies. As a result, too many of the characters are locked into outmoded, unsympathetic stereotypes. (Most notably, the role of Juror No. 3 (Michael Russotto), a hands-off father who almost “dies of embarrassment” when his young son backs down from a fight, is so outmoded, it practically screams 1950’s “spare the rod” parenting). In Epp’s production this is particularly problematic where the jurors most reticent to changing their votes to spare boy’s life are all played by white actors.
The play opens with the jury foreman calling for an initial vote. Eleven of the 12 jurors immediately vote “guilty,” leaving only Juror No. 8 (Erik King) to advocate for additional discussion of the facts before condemning a boy to death. King delivers a stand-out performance as the lone ‘juror of conscience,’ whose claimed interest is only to revisit the facts of the case to ensure there are no holes in the evidence that might create ‘reasonable doubt.’ Yet, below his calm, calculated reserve and dignified manner, King emits a barely-contained, pulsating anger that rivets the audience.
Twelve Angry Men
closes February 17, 2019
Details and tickets
Juror No. 8 skillfully coaxes the room of men to revisit each piece of evidence in the case, casually planting seeds of doubt until—one by one—the jurors are swayed to change their vote to “not guilty.” By no mistake, the first jurors to be swayed are those played by black actors and, with each crossing over, the racial tension in the room increases. When the jury reaches a vote of 6 to 6—all of the black men voting “not guilty;” all of the white “guilty,” the room explodes into a cacophony of accusations, with Juror No. 8 left to physically hold the men back from fighting.
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This moment of absolute divide—black against white—is arguably the crux of Epp’s vision for the play—that “justice” is inevitably shaped by individual prejudices. Yet, by making the choice to have all 6 black jurors on the side of acquittal, Epps sets up an “us” versus “them” scenario that doesn’t play out in the remainder of the script.
Surely, Juror No. 10 (Elan Zafir, delivering a wonderfully contemptable, utterly unapologetic performance)—a blue-collar, vitriolic racist who finally breaks down shouting that “they” (impliedly, blacks) are “little more than animals” who “gleefully kill each other for fun” and “cannot be trusted,” reinforces every stereotype of blind racial hatred. Yet it is only Juror No. 10 whose initial “guilty” vote can be fairly tied to pure racial prejudice. And Juror No. 10 never has the opportunity for redemption. Rather, he changes his vote to “not guilty” only after being rebuked and ostracized by his own fellow white jurors, and, sulking in a corner, agrees to go along with the majority because he “doesn’t care” about the outcome—or whether the boy lives or dies.
The suggestion that somehow the divide between the jurors is based primarily on some inherent racial prejudice is never born out—and would require far greater adaptation of the script. At best we are left to wonder whether, as each white juror changes his vote from “guilty” to “innocent,” he does so on the basis of Juror No. 8’s exacting ability to poke holes in the evidence creating room for reasonable doubt, or if, instead, their changes of heart are nothing more than the product of white guilt.
Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose. Directed by Sheldon Epps. Scenic Design, Stephanie Kerley Schwartz. Costume Design, Wade Laboissonniere. Lighting Design, Dan Covey. Sound Design, John Gromada. Featuring Bru Ajueyitsi, Christopher Bloch, Eric Hissom, Erik King, Sean-Maurice Lynch, Brandon McCoy, Jason B. McIntosh, Lawrence Redmond, Michael Russotto, Bueka Uwemedimo, Craig Wallace, Elan Zafir and Paz López. Produced by Ford’s Theatre . Reviewed by Meaghan Hannan Davant.
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