Pasadena Playhouse Creates a 12 Angry Men for Trayvon Martin Era
"Human life don't mean as much to them as it does to us. Look, they're brushing it up and fighting all the time. If somebody gets killed so somebody gets killed, they don't care. ... There's a danger here. These people are dangerous. They're wild."
Several jurors walk away from the table during this late-play outburst by Juror No. 10 in Reginald Rose's 1954 courtroom drama, Twelve Angry Men, which begins previews at the Pasadena Playhouse Nov. 5 in a production staged by the theater's artistic director, Sheldon Epps. That speech comes after a test vote of the jurors — on the fate of a "kid" from a New York slum accused of stabbing his own father — comes out three guilty, nine not guilty, a dramatic reversal from the play's opening test vote of 11 guilty, one not guilty. The speech is a pathetic homage to white supremacy, the terror of an ethnicity that it will one day lose its hegemony in the culture.
Epps feels that the population surge of people of color in many American cities, rendering Caucasians a "minority" there, has fed the fears of some whites, so horrifyingly expressed in Juror No. 10's speech.
Before a rehearsal, over coffee up the street from the theater, Epps says the impetus for staging the play this year was the Trayvon Martin verdict, in which white vigilante George Zimmerman was acquitted in July for the murder of a young black man whom Zimmerman determined was a threat. Epps' production aims to demonstrate how racism remains as vulgar in many quarters as it was in the middle of the 20th century, that it may not — as is commonly believed — necessarily have taken on more subtle nuances through the decades. "Before Trayvon Martin, Twelve Angry Men wasn't burning in my consciousness" as it was afterward, Epps says.
The stage play is based on Rose's 1954 script for the television version and led to Sidney Lumet's 1957 film starring Henry Fonda as the primary voice of reason. It also included a very young Jack Klugman and Ed Begley Jr., with Lee J. Cobb as Juror No. 10. In those years, it was always cast with 12 white men.
A 1997 Showtime movie with Jack Lemmon, featuring George C. Scott as the bigot-in-residence, dipped into mixed-race casting, which has been emulated in many productions. But none has used Epps' concept of casting six white men and six black men as the jury.
"I think this particular casting doesn't change the meaning of the play, it intensifies it," Epps explains. "Racial issues have always been at the heart of the material. The defendant, in the play — the boy — is never clearly identified in the text. It's discussed that he's the minority, 'the other,' nonwhite. I think what's interesting to me, when you go back to the original production, it was a bunch of white men deciding the fate of someone of color."
Epps adds that while Juror No. 10's diatribe uses "words from the middle of last century ... the language of that monologue is language I've heard in the last month on Fox News. So the fact that that kind of language, philosophy, those kind of feelings are still among us, demands that the play be done again, so that we don't think that we're dealing with something from the past, despite how far we've come."
Epps cast some of the upper-class jurors as black, reflecting some of the 21st century's economic advances, which may well be a reason for the resentment against them, as well as against President Barack Obama, he says.
Epps asked the actors to write biographies for their characters, and to examine the intersections between those biographies and their own lives. He doesn't direct aggressively in rehearsal but says he did want the black actors to relate the situations to real-life moments in which they've felt racism.
"I've only had to encourage the reactions already implicit in the play," he says. "All I have to do is give the actors the freedom to hear those words and have it enter their own consciousness, affect them genuinely and personally, as they would if they were spoken in a store or on a street. ... Their reaction is both the character's reaction and genuinely their own."
Epps says he considered casting the play entirely with black actors, having the bigotry spouted by a black man in order to demonstrate internal racism. "That would be an entirely valid approach," Epps says. But it was a fleeting impulse.
He says he has confronted some concerned reactions to the production, such as the notion that theater is not supposed to take a stand. "What stand?!" Epps asks, incredulous. "That racism is bad?"
To Epps, the open question of whether theater should take a stand — and what stand audiences may think this production is taking — is less important than bringing out the obvious in Rose's play. The production is more about pointing to the violent bigotry that is already in the air, blown in on the zephyr of the Zimmerman controversy. "Theater is an ephemeral art form," Epps says. "Sometimes it needs simply to capture a moment."
Twelve Angry Men is at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena, from Nov. 5 through Dec. 1. For more information, go to pasadenaplayhouse.org.