Theater / Performance

12 Angry Men (Adrienne Theater, 04Oct13)

 What They Say It Is:

What seems like an open-and-shut murder case becomes a twisted puzzle of prejudice and intrigue. Twelve jurors in a murder trial are corralled in a room for the duration of their deliberation. As prejudices are tested and evidence is weighed, the entire jury is forced to look past the show of the courtroom to unearth the shocking truth. Faced with playing the hangmen, these dozen jurors must first face themselves.

Typically performed with a cast of 12 Caucasian Males, this presentation features a talented Philly based cast of all African-American male and female actors. The production is directed by veteran Ozzie Jones.

NEW Clay Says graphic Ernie 

According to Wikipedia, 12AM was originally a television play broadcast in 1954, eventually making its way to the (actual) stage and then to the silver screen.  I’ve gotta observe—this seems to be a somewhat odd theatrical evolution.  In any case, I’d never seen any of the show’s various incarnations, and was only vaguely familiar with the show’s essential plot when Tara selected it for our Friday night entertainment.

I’ll admit that I went into 12AM vaguely expecting a mildly preachy social issues play—although I have a deep interest in social justice and sociopolitical issues, I don’t necessarily prefer my art to come in these flavors.  Art, in my humble opinion, is at its best when aspiring to primarily creative and original ends, and (can be) far less interesting  if forced to serve an explicit societal ‘function’.  I’m well aware that it’s almost impossible to create a work without some small degree of social commentary, and that plenty of the world’s best art feature bold political opinions, but it just isn’t what I’m inclined to seek out.  Mindless entertainment is not what I’m talking about here—rather, I find art-for-art’s sake to be much more interesting than some ham-fisted diatribe of social justice.   My quick preview of 12AM led me to expect a fairly predictable “here’s a problem, and here’s this work’s opinion of that problem”, so I arrived at The Adrienne Theater with low personal expectations.

I’m happy, however, to report that GoKash’s presentation of 12 Angry Men was skillfully able to open a dialog about courtroom ethics, social and racial biases, and human prejudice without resorting to cliché or diatribe.  The show is short, running only 60 minutes, but the drama was well – and didn’t try to stretch the topics further than necessary.  12 jurors—in this modern retelling, all African-American men and women—debate, argue, and (occasionally) console each other as they wrangle the complex topic of guilt (and the death penalty) in a capital murder case.  The show assumes you’ve seen the original source material, or at least it felt that way to me—one of the show’s most clever devices was its refusal to mention the race of the murder suspect.  Jurors railed against the accused, referring to “those people, you know the ones, they’re all alike”, inviting audiences to witness the irony of black jurors condemning a criminal in the prejudiced language of a white privileged class.  This device formed the show’s central theme and wasn’t overly sophisticated, but it was effective—as a white audience member, it was revealing to watch a cast of black actors struggle with the same social/class topics that have historically been assigned to purely white roles.

12-angry-men-logo

The jury virtually condemns the suspect without bothering to consider the full body of evidence, their blackness (playing against the assumed, implied race of the perpetrator) notwithstanding—thus licensing this play to explore issues other than America’s unjust racial history and the overbearing powers of white courts. The jurors’ frustrated personal lives and personal views of class and power become part of the conversation (one frustrated juror recalls her own criminal son, while another Namibian panelist suffers the abuse of her fellow jurors) and allows 12 Angry Men to be about something other than prejudice against the lawfully accused—it’s about personal truths and social views as well, about the ways we form and hold our opinions, and whether justice can ever be served when factual objectivity is, well, almost impossible.  By choosing to emphasize themes other than the classic problem of white privilege vs. black powerlessness, the black jurors became thought-provoking avatars for complicated issues of inter AND intra-racial prejudices, while also demonstrating the commonality these jurors share with people of any race (I was recently involved in jury selection for a Philadelphia trial, and much like the characters here, people were already complaining that they ‘just wanted to get this over with and go home’ before even 2 hours had elapsed). 

I enjoyed this contemporary revision of 12 Angry Men.  The show raised plenty of deep, interesting questions without attempting to provide pat answers to charged topics.  The 12 actors were professional and entertaining, and the show didn’t revise the source material into something unrecognizable or off-putting.  Instead, 12AM made deft gestures toward a modern society where problems first addressed in this 1950s work are still relevant and tough to discuss, even in our ‘enlightened’ modernist context.  Recommended.

NEW Tara Says Graphic

Hmmmm . . .  my partner Clay has already given you an excellent summary.  His points about inter/intra-racial prejudices resonate with my own view of the show, along with his comments about bias against those who are impoverished and the questionable nature of our justice system.  Personally, i was also interested in the show’s points about the ways that strong individuals with strong views and biases can influence the decisions of others (one vote makes a difference) and the questions this raises about the nature of truth.
Bringing us to the questionable nature of our justice system.  The play very nicely illustrates that each character has personal motivation and internal biases that influence their ability to be fair and provide a decision based only on the facts presented by the lawyers.  Some jurors just want to go home, some characters are battling internal demons that result in a desire to enact revenge (via transference to the accused) and finally, many of the players are indifferent to the trial.  I’d like to point out that one of the downfalls of this show is a heavy reliance on the American ethos of “one person can make a difference” . . .  although I am not stating this idea is entirely incorrect.  It is simply a personification of the notion of american independence . . . which, in my humble opinion, is a bit sentimental and overly clever.  But this is a comment on the function of the play itself and has no reflection on the actors or this specific adaptation. 

The "classic" image of this cast has been completely revised to an all African-American ensemble.

The “classic” image of this cast has been completely revised to an all African-American ensemble, and the inherent sexism issue has been fixed, too!

In fact, I thought the actors did a very impressive job.  Due to the humble setting of the play- a single room with a table and chairs, the characters and dialogue are the sole focus.  The actors are pushed to fill the entire evening with tension and drama without the accoutrement of music, lighting or elaborate sets.  The emotional breakdown of the final voting juror was phenomenal.  Our seats were in the front row and it was all I could do not not get up and hug the actress; she seemed to be in so much pain!  I was impressed with her ability to evoke this high level of emotional stress, and still be able to participate in the Q & A at the end.
Having some familiarity with the movie 12AM I did enjoy the actors Q&A at the end of the production.  I liked that we were encouraged to talk about about issues in the play that are still relevant to our society, decades after the first performance of the show.  For example, the shooting of Trayvon Martin was raised, leading the audience and cast to talk about our opinions of racial issues in our justice system.  Another audience member recalled her time on a rape trial and the ways it affected her, and another audience member briefly described her emotional and ethical struggles during a capital case. 

During the Q&A, one savvy audience member asked – “when preparing for the show, of what race did you picture the accused?”  This question forces you to examine your initial reaction did you picture the accused as black man, simply because the actors before you are black?  Or, did you picture the accused as a white person facing a black jury, thus leaving white audience members to empathize with the accused as an “outsider” to the jury?  As mentioned above, the show focused on a variety of intra-racial prejudices by never identifying the race of the accused, and thereby highlighted our own cultural biases.  “they are like that”.  Using open-ended language (speaking of the accused: “those people are just like that”) has allowed this production – a script from the 1950’s – to stay relevant.  The language of “us and them” is, unfortunately, timeless.

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