By Olu Alemoru, Staff Writer
Give or take a couple of lines The Pasadena Playhouse’s staging of the American theatre classic, “12 Angry Men,” sticks faithfully to playwright Reginald Rose’s thought-provoking courtroom treatise.
But the play, a taut drama about how one skeptical juror seeks to win over his 11 other seemingly bigoted colleagues, takes on an even more provocative bent under the direction of Sheldon Epps, who casts six White and six Black actors to form the jury. The production opened on Sunday night and plays through Dec. 1.
The pivotal role of Juror 8, who goes against the grain, played by Henry Fonda in the 1957 Sidney Lumet-directed film version, is tackled by Jason George, who has current recurring roles in three television series, “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Witches of East End” and “Mistresses.”
In an interview Monday with George, he was happy to debate the racial and political overtones of the drama. “I was supportive of Sheldon, because the half Black half White casting takes on a whole new meaning and it feels incredibly up to date,” he said. “You start to realize the playwright was dead on and how universal and timeless these issues are whenever you’re talking about quote/unquote the ‘other.’ In the 1920’s it could have been Italians talking about the Irish. In the 50’s, 90’s and now it’s a different thing, but there’s always someone talking about somebody else. You can just fill in the ethnicities and the person being spoken about. Prejudice, racism, anti-Semitism, lack of religious tolerance, is all kind of the same thing.
He added: “ The play opens and they’re in the jury room to determine the guilt or innocence of an unseen defendant. Juror 8 is the hold out for not guilty, he’s the one with questions.”
According to George, the production has enjoyed stellar audiences throughout the preview process, which has led to a healthy discourse into the matters at hand.
“I had one woman say something really interesting to me,” he explained. “She said why did you cast all the White guys as all the bad guys? I hope the playwright had some idea of how profound a statement he made when my character says, ‘it’s hard to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this.’ I think her statement says as much about her as it does about anyone else because in the beginning everybody — apart from Juror 8 — is against the kid and slowly over time everything changes.”
Meanwhile, the specter of the George Zimmerman trial casts a similarly provocative pale across proceedings, Epps got the idea to stage the production in response to what was happening in Florida.
George contended that although people tried to declare the country post-racial when Obama came into office, all that really happened is that the country broke into a level where we can get into much more nuanced conversations.
“My own personal views are that if we know that he killed the boy then the only question is, is he guilty of that level of crime?” George reasoned. “For me that’s where things went awry, which I think may have been the strategy of the legal team. I think they over-reached; when you put him [Zimmerman] up for second degree murder as opposed to manslaughter, it comes with degrees of difficulty.”
However, concluding on a lighter note, George revealed that he was never fazed by the legacy of Oscar-winning Fonda’s portrayal.
“He’s Henry Fonda,” George replied. “So between this and Tom Joad in ‘Grapes of Wrath’ that’s a battle I cannot hope to win. So, people can truthfully throw any comparisons out of the window from the get-go and just except my performance on its own merits.”
Photo by Jim Cox
(L-R) Scott Lowell, Adam J. Smith, Gregory North, Robert Picardo, Clinton Derricks-Carroll, Barry Pearl, Bradford Tatum, Ellis E. Williams, Jason George, Adolphus Ward.