Barker’s 12 Angry Jurors Remains Relevant

In the 1950s, the death penalty was still widely legal across the country — though falling out of fashion — and only men served on juries in many states. This is the world in which Reginald Rose wrote the teleplay 12 Angry Men. Throughout the past half century, the story has received multiple adaptations on stage and screen and is still widely produced. But in a world where all kinds of people serve on juries and the death penalty is only legal in a few places, how well can the play hold up today?

The first step is a name change to 12 Angry Jurors (it can also still be done as 12 Angry Men or changed to 12 Angry Women). After that, what’s left remains shockingly relevant  racism, xenophobia, the strengths and weaknesses of the criminal justice system and the value of a young man’s life. However different the world may be today from when the play was originally written, Patricia Hawkridge’s staging at the Barker Playhouse shows us how much hasn’t changed.

The cast features 12 jurors deciding the fate of a 19-year-old boy accused of murdering his abusive father, with a guilty verdict leading to his execution. None of the jurors are named; each one is only referred to by their number. Very little about each character’s life is established we only know one is in advertising, one grew up in the slums, one immigrated from an unspecified country in eastern Europe, one has a tumultuous relationship with his son, one is rich, one is an unremarkable old man and one is blatantly racist. These characteristics all affect how they view the case, however much the jurors remind each other to make their decision based not on feelings but facts, and not to make it personal.

While initially most of the jurors, eager to wrap things up, especially given the lack of air conditioning and the summer heat, agree that the boy is obviously guilty, Juror 8 (Neil Santoro) raises doubts. Since a unanimous decision is required, the 11 others attempt to change his verdict, but instead, he sows seeds of reasonable doubt in them bit by bit, posing questions that were left unasked by the boy’s evidently incompetent appointed legal representation. Without Juror 8, the boy’s poverty would have been enough to sentence him to death.

The choices of which jurors are women in this version lead to a dynamic wherein the men are aggressive and tend to dominate the conversation dare I say there’s a presence of toxic masculinity and the women are more likely to be indecisive and easily swayed. It is interesting to note that some productions cast Juror 8 as a woman, which probably makes for a more feminist arc in that while at first, her point of view is dismissed as her just making things more difficult, as they are forced to listen, and as she remains rational and cool in the face of aggression, they begin to be swayed. Even so, opportunities to comment on gender are limited by the original having been written for a cast of men.

Perhaps the most poignant moments in the show come from Juror 11 (Amanda O’Bannon), the European emigre, who views our justice system and the ability to debate opposing viewpoints from the perspective of someone who has not always lived in such a society. She reminds both the characters and the audience that for all of its flaws, the rights and duties this system gives its citizens is something that makes this country what it is.

Also noteworthy is Juror 5 (Rachel Nadeau), a young woman who, though reluctant to speak at first, proves to have invaluable insight into the kind of life the accused has lived, having been raised in the slums herself. One of her observations in particular of how experienced knife fighters handle switchblades helps to highlight a major inconsistency in the case.

As Juror 3, the most steadfast of the “guilty” verdicts, Nicholas Menna has a terrifyingly short fuse and closed mind, though his redeeming moment comes when he joins his fellow jurors in turning away from Juror 10’s (Michael Anthony) racist tirade.

Though the program states that the setting is Providence, it’s pretty obvious the play was not written with Rhode Island in mind for one, an elevated train plays a big role in the events of the trial, and second, Rhode Island was one of the earliest states to abolish the death penalty. Nonetheless, where in the country the play is set is left open-ended in the script as are many details which is likely intentional. We don’t know, for instance, the race of the accused, though Juror 10 often refers to him as one of “those people,” and the audience can guess what he means by that. Even the namelessness of the jurors allows a universality to the play: anywhere you go, you’ll find a Juror 10 defaming “those people,” but you’ll also find a Juror 4 (Carole Collins) to tell him to shut his mouth; you’ll find a Juror 3 who will gladly send a young man to his death without a second thought, but you’ll also find a Juror 8, who believes they owe it to him to talk things through first. This, at least, is the hope of the play: that where there is prejudice and personal grudges, there ought also to be reason and the valuing of life, and in this balance, there can be justice.

Twelve Angry Jurors runs through Mar 18 at the Barker Playhouse, 400 Benefit St, PVD

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