Some consider 12 Angry Men to be the best juror movie ever filmed. The Rude Mechanicals’ worthwhile production of Twelve Angry Women at Greenbelt Arts Center is an adaptation of the 1957 film with one notable exception: The jurors are women. While the Greenbelt cast includes African American women, they seem to be playing the roles of whites. The script includes several racist diatribes that players act unoffended by, adding to a 1957 atmosphere.
Erin Nealer’s set is simple but effective. Two tables are arranged in a wide V shape with 12 seats around them. The jury room has one window, a water cooler, and a coffee pot. A couple of chairs are placed along a back wall. Director Ed Starr uses every inch of the set at some point to bring the drama and action alive.
Since audience seats are in three sections — center, right, and left — the best way to view the play is from the center seating. Otherwise, some characters will have their backs to you.
Following the closing arguments in a murder trial, the 12 members of the jury must deliberate, with a guilty verdict meaning death for the accused, an inner-city teen. As the dozen jurors try to reach a unanimous decision while sequestered in a room, one of them (Henry Fonda in the film) casts considerable doubt on elements of the case. Personal issues soon rise to the surface, and conflict threatens to derail the delicate process that will decide one boy’s fate.
Exchange men with women and Henry Ford with Devora Zack and you have opening night of Twelve Angry Women. Zack gave an excellent performance.
Reginald Rose wrote Twelve Angry Women based on his television movie. The fact that there is no air conditioning takes the audience back to 1957. The jurors are forced to face life experiences, prejudices, personalities, and biases, which create conflict when faced with the evidence and the question of reasonable doubt, as Starr says in his notes.
The play’s backstory goes like this. A man is stabbed to death. One witness, a block away, claims she saw the son kill his father. She saw this through the windows of two trains that were speeding by near midnight. A man living in the apartment below the murder scene testified he saw the son fleeing down the apartment steps 15 seconds later. Also, the father and son had a fight earlier in the night in which the son was heard crying, “I’ll kill you.”
With that evidence, the jury is almost sure the man on trial is guilty. Their initial vote is 11-1, by showing of hands. Suddenly Juror Eight (Devora Zack) is the most unpopular woman in the courthouse. Worse still, she “just has a feeling” of reasonable doubt at this point. With a man’s life in the balance, she figures talking it out can’t hurt.
It is in the talking it out process that Juror Three (Melanie Jester) — who had previously said, “People don’t say ‘I’ll kill you’” — explodes at Juror Eight; and Juror Three, restrained by two other jurors, furiously shouts, “I’ll kill you!” That scene is the beginning of the end for the holdouts.
Zack is fabulous in her role using rationality, reason, and calm to expose other jurors to reasonable doubt. At one point Juror Eight surprises other jurors by pulling out a “switch knife” — again referring to 1957 language — similar to the one in evidence used in the murder. When would a juror have the time to visit the scene of the crime and purchase a weapon at a store “around the corner”? But that is what creativity is all about.
Finally, Juror Ten (Laurel Miller-Sims) deserves some recognition. Her role was charged with the “them,” “those people,” “their kind” type of statements. With two switchblades in the room, there were several times I felt like taking one and stabbing Miller-Sims or Jester. Well not them, but their characters. I mean that as the highest praise. They played the roles hating Blacks, the poor, or young people so realistically they would convict a young man to assuage their fears and hatred. I believed it.
This is a drama worth watching. And thinking about.
Running Time: 70 minutes with no intermission.
12 Angry Women plays through September 10, 2022, presented by the Rude Mechanicals in residence at Greenbelt Arts Center, 123 Centerway, Greenbelt, MD. General admission tickets are $24 ($22 student and military) and must be purchased in advance online.
COVID Safety: You must wear a mask even if you have been vaccinated
against COVID-19. Audience members will be required to comply with GAC’s Covid-19 Policy.
Actors: Carey Bibb, Juror One; Renee Namakau Ombaba, Juror Two; Shirley Long, Apprentice Director, understudy for Juror Two; Melanie Jester Juror Three; Ayanna Fowler, Juror Four; Jaki Demarest Juror Five, on opening night, and Asssitant Director; Rachel Duda, Juror Six; Sarah Pfanz, Juroe Seven; Devora Zack, Juror Eight; Penny Martin, Juror Nine; Laurel Mille-Sims, Juror Ten; Malia Murray, Juror Eleven; Holly Trout, Juror Twelve; Peter Eichman, Guard. (Spencer Dye is listed as Juror Five; Sharon Gaston understudy Juror Twelve.)