Theater review: ‘Twelve Angry Jurors’ by Different Strokes!

CIVIC UNREST: An ensemble cast clashes during their debates over the fate of a man accused of murder. Photo by Jenn McCormack Photography

The weather is stifling hot, and every juror is on edge in a cramped jury room. Nearly everyone appears ready to render a guilty verdict and go home. Juror 8, played by Molly Graves, is the lone holdout who has reasonable doubt about the guilt of the young man on trial for the murder of his father in Twelve Angry Jurors, staged by Different Strokes! Performing Arts Collective at Asheville High School’s Theatre Arts Building through Saturday, Oct. 20.

The set design is purposefully minimal: tables for the jurors, a window, a door, a small buffet for water decanters. The most striking element is a photo. Prominent in the background is the proverbial elephant in the room: the official presidential portrait of Donald J. Trump.

Director Stephanie Hickling Beckman has modernized the 1954 screenplay, originally titled Twelve Angry Men, to include a diverse group of people more representative of the U.S. population. In her director’s notes, she writes, “Despite the age of the script, or its name, this play is timeless.” She hopes it will touch some nerves as the jurors reveal their own prejudices and viewpoints about “the other” and the criminal justice system.

Such a sparse set design is optimal for the movements of the jurors as they get in each other’s faces about “the facts” and “those people.” From the beginning, the sound of a ticking clock relentlessly reminds the jurors and the audience that some jurors think they’re wasting time, while others think there aren’t enough hours to debate the testimony or to save a man’s life.

Juror 8 is pitted against Juror 3 — played by Tracey Johnston-Crum — the holdout for a guilty verdict. The idea that a verdict could be reached through a process of intimidation or personal attacks is disturbing to consider. The play intentionally challenges the idea that a “jury of our peers” genuinely deliberates. Rather than a deliberative process, it’s more about a rush to judgment based on inherent bias and impatience. The physicality of the actors upends ideas about rational discourse and careful consideration of the facts. Instead, the jurors cannot even agree on the definition of “reasonable doubt.” One irate juror is “tired of facts.”

For those familiar with the classic film staring Henry Fonda, this performance is a desperately needed update to include the ordinary people who would make up a contemporary jury. The casting for the play is superb and challenges audience expectations about who is free of prejudice. A comparison of the film with this play highlights the changes in society in the last 60 years.

Momentum is key to this staging, and the ensemble works well together, almost like a dance choreographed to represent the shifting points of view.

Hickling Beckman has rendered a provocative retelling of this masterpiece of courtroom drama. We’re left to consider the fragility of justice and what Henry David Thoreau described in Civil Disobedience as the “majority of one.” That is, the person who, by her own moral position, can call into question the unjust view of the majority.

WHAT: Twelve Angry Jurors by Different Strokes! differentstrokespac.org
WHERE: Asheville High School’s Theatre Arts Building, 419 McDowell St.
WHEN: Through Saturday, Oct. 20. Thursdays-Saturdays, at 7:30 p.m. No show Friday, Oct. 12. $18 advance/$21 at the door

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About Patricia Furnish
Patricia Furnish is a North Carolina native who loves history, Spanish, and the visual arts. She is also a documentary filmmaker. Follow me @drpatriqua

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