12 ANGRY MEN (Gokash): A revealing look at social justice

According to Wikipedia, 12 ANGRY MEN was originally a television play broadcast in 1954, eventually making its way to the (actual) stage and then to the silver screen.  I’ve gotta observe—this seems to be a somewhat odd theatrical evolution.  In any case, I’d never seen any of the show’s various incarnations, and was only vaguely familiar with the show’s essential plot when Tara selected it for our Friday night entertainment.

Roni Graham, Carlo Campbell, Eric Carter, Jeff Hymon in 12 ANGRY MEN. (Photo credit: Katie Balun)Roni Graham, Carlo Campbell, Eric Carter, Jeff Hymon in 12 ANGRY MEN. (Photo credit: Katie Balun)
Roni Graham, Carlo Campbell, Eric Carter, Jeff Hymon in 12 ANGRY MEN. (Photo credit: Katie Balun)Roni Graham, Carlo Campbell, Eric Carter, Jeff Hymon in 12 ANGRY MEN. (Photo credit: Katie Balun)

I’ll admit that I went into 12 ANGRY MEN vaguely expecting a mildly preachy social issues play—although I have a deep interest in social justice and sociopolitical issues, I don’t necessarily prefer my art to come in these flavors.  Art, in my humble opinion, is at its best when aspiring to primarily creative and original ends, and (can be) far less interesting  if forced to serve an explicit societal ‘function’.  I’m well aware that it’s almost impossible to create a work without some small degree of social commentary, and that plenty of the world’s best art feature bold political opinions, but it just isn’t what I’m inclined to seek out.  Mindless entertainment is not what I’m talking about here—rather, I find art-for-art’s sake to be much more interesting than some ham-fisted diatribe of social justice.   My quick preview of 12 ANGRY MEN led me to expect a fairly predictable “here’s a problem, and here’s this work’s opinion of that problem”, so I arrived at The Adrienne Theater with low personal expectations.

I’m happy, however, to report that GoKash’s presentation of 12 ANGRY MEN was skillfully able to open a dialog about courtroom ethics, social and racial biases, and human prejudice without resorting to cliché or diatribe.  The show is short, running only 60 minutes, but the drama was well – and didn’t try to stretch the topics further than necessary.  Twelve jurors—in this modern retelling, all African-American men and women—debate, argue, and (occasionally) console each other as they wrangle the complex topic of guilt (and the death penalty) in a capital murder case.  The show assumes you’ve seen the original source material, or at least it felt that way to me—one of the show’s most clever devices was its refusal to mention the race of the murder suspect.  Jurors railed against the accused, referring to “those people, you know the ones, they’re all alike”, inviting audiences to witness the irony of black jurors condemning a criminal in the prejudiced language of a white privileged class.  This device formed the show’s central theme and wasn’t overly sophisticated, but it was effective—as a white audience member, it was revealing to watch a cast of black actors struggle with the same social/class topics that have historically been assigned to purely white roles.

The jury virtually condemns the suspect without bothering to consider the full body of evidence, their blackness (playing against the assumed, implied race of the perpetrator) notwithstanding—thus licensing this play to explore issues other than America’s unjust racial history and the overbearing powers of white courts. The jurors’ frustrated personal lives and personal views of class and power become part of the conversation (one frustrated juror recalls her own criminal son, while another Namibian panelist suffers the abuse of her fellow jurors) and allows 12 ANGRY MEN to be about something other than prejudice against the lawfully accused—it’s about personal truths and social views as well, about the ways we form and hold our opinions, and whether justice can ever be served when factual objectivity is, well, almost impossible.  By choosing to emphasize themes other than the classic problem of white privilege vs. black powerlessness, the black jurors became thought-provoking avatars for complicated issues of inter AND intra-racial prejudices, while also demonstrating the commonality these jurors share with people of any race (I was recently involved in jury selection for a Philadelphia trial, and much like the characters here, people were already complaining that they ‘just wanted to get this over with and go home’ before even 2 hours had elapsed).

I enjoyed this contemporary revision of 12 ANGRY MEN.  The show raised plenty of deep, interesting questions without attempting to provide pat answers to charged topics. The twelve actors were professional and entertaining, and the show didn’t revise the source material into something unrecognizable or off-putting.  Instead, 12 ANGRY MEN made deft gestures toward a modern society where problems first addressed in this 1950s work are still relevant and tough to discuss, even in our ‘enlightened’ modernist context. September 29-October 18, 2013, gokashproductions.com.

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