Twelve Angry Men Director Sheldon Epps Expounds on His Meditation on Race in the American Justice System
The new production premiering at the Pasadena Playhouse offers fresh insight on the classic play.
There have been monumental explorations on directors' visions using classic works to reflect modern conflicts. Orson Welles famously reset Shakespeare's Macbeth on a Haitian Island. A London school in 2009 caused a stir by recasting Romeo and Juliet as two men. Now, the Pasadena Playhouse has taken Reginald Rose's 1954 teleplay Twelve Angry Men, a work that already discusses the volatile subject of race, and infused the text with additional layers by casting six African-Americans and six Caucasians in the roles of twelve ordinary men sitting in a jury room in Chicago arguing for a young boy's life.
Sheldon Epps, artistic director of the theater and director of this production, reshaped Rose's classic with an agenda: Spark a conversation amongst theatergoers regarding the skewed balance of the court system.
What was the impetus for choosing Twelve Angry Men?
Sheldon Epps: I was on the hunt for something to fill [a] slot. During that period, the Trayvon Martin case verdict came down. There were varied reactions to the trial, with the topic of race and how race affected the justice system. President Obama made that very moving speech about race. It made me feel strongly that theater could contribute to the conversation [and it] would be a healthy place to do it.
The play takes place at the time it was written, the mid-fifties. Did you consciously keep the play in that period?
Sheldon Epps: No. I wanted it deliberately to feel more contemporary. I didn't want this sense that [the conflicts] were removed from us and were only a part of history.I wanted it to feel of the moment. I have to say one of the surprises when I read the play is there was surprisingly little that I thought needed to be changed. 97.9% of what is there was as Reginald Rose wrote it.
What was the process for debating which character would be played by which race of actor?
Sheldon Epps: It was an involved process…It was a combination of the right actor with right role but also with views espoused by the character. It was quite clear that a number of characters could not be black because of their views.
Was there any consideration of casting women in some of the roles?
Sheldon Epps: As written, these characters are men and I wanted to respect Reginald Rose's art. I'm not a playwright. I'm not intending to rewrite the play. To me, this is about a bunch of guys in the room and how men in a tight, constricted space interact. I think you'd have to do considerable rewriting to make it about gender. And frankly, the play is very much about the bad behavior that men display when they're convinced they are right. Their ego and macho attitudes get in the way.
Were most of the characterization changes done before the production started or was there workshopping with the actors involved?
Sheldon Epps: Early in the production, I asked the actors to give themselves to their racial sensitivities, what people of color hear on a daily basis that get their ankles up. The company certainly responded to that bravely. There are moments when race is clearly the point of discussions and surface and many more when it is below the surface, particularly the way a certain word or reference is spoken.
There's a richness to Juror Nine (the elderly wise man played by Adolphus Ward). The character has gravitas and a weight of history that comes when it's played by an older black man. You know what that man has been through in a deeply resonant way. When that older black man discusses being nobody, being ignored, it has a richer subtext.
The play never identifies the defendant's race. Did you consciously decide the character's ethnicity?
Sheldon Epps: [All the talk] about "one of those people" was an indicator that [the defendant accused of stabbing his father to death] is nonwhite. In our discussions, after carefully excavating text, we considered it was a Latino. There are eleven men in that room, some of color, who are making a quick assumption that the boy is guilty. Some of the black men are making that decision because of [the defendant's] race. Are they not evaluating the evidence? Is Jason George [who plays the level-headed Juror Eight] finding a need to go through this case because he doesn't want to see another young man of color so quickly thrown away? That bounces directly back to the Obama speech [after the Trayvon Martin verdict] where he said "that could have been me. Or if I had a son, that could have been my son." Juror Eight is holding responsibility toward a person of color.
One of the startling changes in the text is the assaulting N-Word unleashed.
Sheldon Epps: The N-Word came through the rehearsal process and was a result from the casting, who was talking to whom, the point of view of the character [who] uses the word. It came to seem to be a lie not to use the word. We would be holding back on the truth of that character if we didn't go that far.
Do you feel like you achieved your initial goals?
Sheldon Epps: What is interesting of the play and this production, in the end, [is that] it doesn't fall out among racial lines. Almost everyone in the room is eventually doing the right thing, working through the issues, and working past skin color and listening to [one another] and getting out of their own way to let justice prevail.