Timeless tensions

Timeless tensions

The Pasadena Playhouse brings race and justice to the stage with ‘Twelve Angry Men’

By Carl Kozlowsk 11/05/2013

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It’s hard enough writing a work of art that profoundly speaks to the tenor of a writer’s own time, and even more remarkable when a play, a book, a TV program or a movie feels dynamic and fresh even decades after its creation. But that’s exactly what Reginald Rose accomplished when he wrote “Twelve Angry Men” in 1954. 

The play, which debuted on television in 1954 before hitting Broadway the next year and becoming a classic movie starring Henry Fonda in 1957, depicts a team of jurors deciding the fate of a young minority man who is accused of killing his own father. One particular juror — known only as Juror Number Eight — questions and confronts the racial prejudice of his fellow jurors and winds up turning the tide of a seemingly certain guilty verdict to save the accused man’s life. 

But despite the fact it’s nearly 60 years old, Pasadena Playhouse Artistic Director Sheldon Epps feels that the Playhouse’s new production — running through Dec. 1 — is certain to inspire conversations and debate about the headlines of today. 

“First of all, it’s a great American play, a classic play, and this theater has a history of doing those with Tennessee Williams and August Wilson and others,” says Epps, who is directing the production. “There were a lot of racial issues in the air with Trayvon Martin. I heard Obama’s speech on race, which I was very, very moved by and had some personal attachment to. I thought it was good for the theater to address those issues and keep the dialogue going and inspire more questions if not answers. 

“This play came to me in a moment of inspiration,” Epps continues. “I went back to read the play again and felt in a very timely way it dealt with issues of race and perception. It felt to me that the theater could get into that conversation through our art form.” 

Indeed, “Twelve Angry Men” has inspired all manner of casting options in its various permutations, including a 1997 Showtime pay-cable version in which Jack Lemmon stepped into Fonda’s shoes as Juror Number Eight. There have also been prominent stage productions with all-black and all-female casts, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of this play is that it never specifies exactly what the ethnic background of the accused killer actually is. 

“In the play text itself, it’s not stated, but rather it’s referred to as a kid from the slums, but with constant references to ‘those people’ and the way ‘they’ are,” says Epps. “This defendant was one of ‘the other,’ he was a minority. 

“It was written in the early to mid-’50s, so it’s actually sad that it’s as contemporary as it is,” Epps continues. “It’s sad that we’re not having to make changes to feel contemporary. It feels like it could have been written last week, and that’s an unfortunate statement. A man speaks out of his fear of the country being taken over and that ‘they’re’ out to destroy us. For the first time the nation has to face that the man with the most power is a person of color and that threatens and scares a lot of people.”

Epps engaged in a broad casting call to fill the roles of the jurors, but the most critical part was that of Juror Number Eight, who in this case is portrayed by rising TV star Jason George of ABC’s “Mistresses” and “Gray’s Anatomy.” As a sign of how the play has adapted over time to incorporate all types of actors, George, 42, is African American. He also nearly entered law school at the University of Virginia before being bitten by the acting bug.

“In the play, 12 angry men come in the room and are all fine with each other, but as questions get asked and the case unravels, you see how people get antsy, nervous , possibly violent as their real worldview comes out,” says George. ”It’s natural to prejudge. The only issue is, do you question prejudgment or always push through? I think as a society we’re getting more into being willing to push the pause button and look at the individual. Sometimes preconceptions are right, but you still have to examine them. “

That is as apt a way as any to describe the kind of lesson that Epps hopes the play will convey to theatergoers during the play’s run. One thing seems certain: The show will offer plenty to discuss the rest of the night, and perhaps beyond. 

“There’s both excitement and questioning out there amid the buzz on this show,” says Epps. “Many people who know the play say they love it and it sounds like a fascinating way to approach it, supports that concept and can’t wait to see it. A few others say it’s fiery and incendiary and ask if that is what you want the theater to be doing. If the theater can find ways to take a stand against racism and prejudice through what we do, of course I want that to happen.” n

“12 Angry Men” opens at 8 p.m. Tuesday and runs through Dec. 1 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $50 to $125. Visit pasadenaplayhouse.org or call (626) 356-7529.

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