The jury’s foreman and the bailiff have a brief exchange in an empty room furnished with twelve chairs. The bailiff (Ken Meleski) ushers the jurors into the deliberation room, eleven men file in, and the locks the door behind them. Not yet befitting the title of the play, including the foreman (Al Van Lith), twelve men mill around a long conference table preparing to decide the fate of a young man charged with murdering his father.
On the small stage where theatre goers have grown accustom to seeing 5 to 6 players, the image of twelve men on stage at the same time, eleven of whom are are white American (the twelfth of Spanish descent) creates a jarring visual frame, a constant reminder deep subtext contained in this work. Little do they know, they the salt of America, they will be soon drawn out of the veneers of their measured respectability.
There is no spoiling Twelve Angry Men. Originally a film by Reginald Rose made for television, airing in 1957, eventually reaching the silver screen, playwrights and drama programs regularly adapt the title as a mainstay in theatre’s repertoire of contemporary major works. Commentary in the most explicit form, well weathered and relevant to this day, Rose wrote Twelve Angry Men in a period of great cultural and political conflict in America’s Golden era.
Elvis, Truman, Burroughs, McCarthy, Bogard, Bacall and Reagan and of course Joe McCarthy all simmering in the great American tuna casserole. A sweeping movement of conformity to conservative beliefs and values ushered in through Sen. McCarthy’s political office, polarized America along several societal fault lines that shifted the landscape of American life. Although we don’t readily associate McCarthism with America’s racial narrative, it certainly sat at least as an antecedent to McCarthy’s raging lunacy. Without explicitly stating it, plausibly Rose’s story uses the white-black racial color line within the context of Justice as a metaphor to juxtapose the society’s expression of social conformity with the noble struggle to live the up to principles of the supreme laws of the land.
A young man’s father has been stabbed to death in his own home, the son the alleged killer. We glean through the jury’s cursory discussion of the case that a teen that lives in a poor neighborhood and has experienced prior run-ins with the law, stands accused. In three minutes a particularly vocal juror uses a series of character assaults, coded and explicit racial stereotypes to remind the other jurors of the certainty of the teen’s guilt. The jurors attempt to confirm the youth’s guilt quickly by vote so that they don’t waste anymore time away from their daily lives, which included going to a baseball game and selling advertising.
Needing a unanimous vote, juror (Mack Heath) herds the others into group think, evoking the juror’s white identities and infallible God given discernment of the truth through their common sense understanding of the world. In defiance, a solitary juror (Nicholas Haubner) surely the devil himself, not satisfied that they have fulfilled their civic duty to issue a verdict explicitly based on the merits of the evidence, votes ‘not guilty’. A contentious tug of war of wit and reason ensues, giving the audience an intense and stirring display of rhetorical and persuasion tactics as the jury struggles to find a consensus.
A well-cast and played production, we see that even within cultural contexts presumed monolithic, various personality archetypes and personas contained within exist and collide as a matter of course, vying to determine if the voice of reason or conformity will win out in the eternal battle raging in the human psyche. Tailor made for audiences with an appetite for provocative and unmasked social commentary and an interest in interpersonal communication this production delivers on all three.
Zack Sharrock, Greg Ryan, Erico Ortiz, Bill Hitt, Paul Weir, Doug Smedbron, Gene Schuldt, David Cooklock, and Tom Jozwik round out the cast of Twelve Angry Men.
Directed by Katherine Beeson, Cream City Theatre, brings Twelve Angry Men off the shelf to Milwaukee area audiences through October 29, with performances on October 27 and 28 at 7:30pm and a matinee Sunday the 2th at 2:00pm at the Inspiration Studios performance space in West Allis, 1500 S. 73rd St. If you go 73rd street is closed under construction, however 76th Street gives easy accessed to the space.
Acknowledgement: This review originally presumed the race of the teen on trial for murder in Twelve Angry Men as black American. While not explicitly stated in the play’s script, or the intent of Beeson in producing this play, in context of the plot, dialog, and setting there are not many other plausible identities that the teen could have been other than black American.
From the perspective of this review, it should be noted that Twelve Angry Men is a play that gives ample room to question how American society gives consideration to social groups that are in subjugated roles in the social hierarchy. Race has proved to be the most enduring social division by which social acceptance, fair consideration and the right to Justice have been denied to entire groups of Americans by law and practice. Masterfully, and rightfully so Rose leaves clear cues in the dialog that the black-white color line is on display that we may judge ourselves by how the least regarded among us is treated.