Reginald Rose knew the compelling nature of courtroom drama – Americans hung on every detail of the trials of Leopold and Loeb and the Lindberg kidnapping. Following his own stint on jury duty, Rose earned the title of father of the courtroom drama with Twelve Angry Men, first a 1954 teleplay, later a movie starring Henry Fonda, and finally a script for stage. Under the direction of Sheldon Epps, Ford’s Theater has revived this classic play with a contemporary bent, offering a polished and thought-provoking night at the theater.
The beauty of the jury-deliberation drama is that within one room we can explore the complex cross section of our diverse human spectrum. If the original production was “black and white” in that twelve white jurors decided the fate of a (strongly inferred) black defendant, Epps has chosen to “colorize” the production by casting six of the twelve jurors as people of color, including the lone holdout Juror Number 8. The eleven to one “Guilty” roll call is slowly eroded through Juror 8’s intransigent resistance and probing rationality, until the vote reaches a six to six standoff along racial lines. Here the message becomes muddled – are we to focus on the rational assessment of reasonable doubt, as initially championed by Rose? Or is the true subject racial bias, with votes changed due to racial identity and white guilt?
The leap to present day is somewhat hobbled by an original script linguistically thumbtacked to the 50s, Wade Laboissonniere’s retro costuming, and the fact that it remains twelve angry MEN. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s set and Dan Covey’s lighting capture the gravity of the choices being made upon their stage. And, despite the ambiguities raised with the racial casting, the ensemble cast was strong, 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. Whether in a dance or a boxing match, the large cast is beautifully choreographed.
Twelve Angry Menis a classic tale, with a taut plot and dialogue. It’s a testament to Rose’s acumen for tension that the original script is gripping sixty years later. The drama’s evergreen component is the divisiveness that exists among diverse neighbors, a truth reflected in our national headlines. Is it even possible to shed our own human experience and truly step into alien shoes? In an era when we’re bowled over with heated conflict and hyperbolic positional politics, it’s nice to remember that cool heads and rational consideration can prevail toward justice.
Twelve Angry Men is playing at the Ford’s Theater though February 17, 2019. The play runs two hours and twenty minutes, with one fifteen-minute intermission. For more information or tickets call 202-347-4833 or click here.Go early to explore the historic Ford’s Theater, 511 Tenth Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004 (202-347-4833).
Photos credit Scott Suchman