Los Angeles Theater Review: TWELVE ANGRY MEN (Pasadena Playhouse)

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by Tony Frankel on November 19, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles

CHEAPENED BY THIS DOZEN

Words such a “tolerance” and “acceptance” are bandied about as America continues a national dialogue on race, oversimplifying the subject of prejudice. Sadly, political correctness has tainted our conversation, and I believe as a white man that the freedom to express my honest feelings on the subject has been restricted, even as a critic. As I shockingly learned recently, racism, contrary to we are led to believe, is Gregory North, Adam J. Smith, Bradford Tatum, Robert Picardo and Jason George in Pasadena Playhouse's production of TWELVE ANGRY MEN.not a one-way street: My review of Black Ensemble Theater’s production of One Name Only in Chicago questioned the validity of a company of color (one with a brand new $20 million theater) producing an inane new work which blatantly stereotyped their own community—a type of entertainment that some refer to as a modern day Chitlin’ Circuit.

Some readers responded with name-calling vitriol, saying that I could dislike the show, but who was I to speak to the bigger issues of Minority Theater, its funding, its relevance, and how it has become verboten to tell the truth about minority productions when they don’t work. As if to prove my point, one reader proclaimed, “And Frankel, take heed. You better recognize that the time to not criticize minority showcases has come and stayed.” Even BET Artistic Director Jackie Taylor added, “Your views are coming from a highly negative and racist place…I would like to tell you to kiss my Black ass.”

As I read other comments, positive and negative, I wondered why this provocative and fascinating conversation rarely occurs on stages across America. Bruce Norris attempts this in Clybourne Park even though his arguments about race are specious. But not since Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ messy but brilliant play, Robert Picardo, Gregory North and Jason George in Pasadena Playhouse's production of TWELVE ANGRY MEN.Neighbors, has theater pondered this thorny subject in a profound way. Instead of creating challenging new works, Artistic Directors are opting to cast minorities in roles once reserved for Caucasians, as if that makes some kind of statement. Without a bigger vision that validates a revival, neither Marc Masterson’s mostly-black production of Death of a Salesman at South Coast Rep nor Bill Roach’s multi-cultural Cymbeline at Oregon Shakespeare resonated (these are just the tip of the iceberg). As I stated in my review of an all-female rendering of Hamlet recently, there’s something rotten in the state of theater when politically correct casting replaces artistry. I look forward to the day when actors are cast for the content of their character, not their color.

Well, yet again, don’t stop the presses. In a new production of Reginald Rose’s 1955 naturalistic juror drama, Twelve Angry Men, director Sheldon Epps has cast six black men and six white men. This isn’t a radical choice. The play, which holds up remarkably well, contains archetypal characters who could easily be any color or sex (the script, which has a jury deciding the fate of a teenager accused of murder, Jason George and Jacques C. Smith (seated) in Pasadena Playhouse's production of TWELVE ANGRY MEN.has been produced as Twelve Angry Jurors). Epps’s 50/50 casting may have been interesting had the play been set mid-50s in any inner city, especially the Deep South, but that would still be a wonky choice because even today a half-black jury is rare. Instead, it’s never clear what time period we are in: Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s costumes are a gallimaufry of styles from the last 60 years, and her non-representational set of concrete support beams and blinds merely confuses.

Setting the time “Then…and Now” (as per the program) actually dilutes Rose’s message that any judgment can blind us from truth. By decontextualizing his production, Epps’s race-card direction feels heavy-handed; updating the script with white men using words such as “nigger” and “nappy-headed” may have seemed like brave choices, but they came off as obvious and disingenuous (on the night I attended, the audience reaction was similar to the “oohs” normally reserved for an episode of TV’s Good Times).

Robert Picardo and Jason George in Pasadena Playhouse's production of TWELVE ANGRY MEN.Rose’s main theme is that issues are not just black and white, but Epps removes us further from that theme with a lopsided deck: The “heroes” in the script—that is, those who are the first to rethink their “guilty” verdict—are black. It is the white men who would rather be at a ball game or put the defendant behind bars just to set an example. The truly brave choice would have been to cast a black man as the character who wants the kid who is on trial imprisoned because he has lost control of his own son. Are we really not ready to have the conversation that judgment and racism is an equal opportunity employer?

It’s astounding how effective the play is considering there is little concrete backstory on the characters, but even with a mostly crackerjack cast, there are as many convincing moments as those which cause disbelief. Barry Pearl, normally a musical-comedy actor, brings vivid life to a loudmouthed antagonist, but Adolphus Ward, brilliant in Fountain Theatre’s The Train Driver, seems to be impersonating Rafiki from The Lion King.

Scott Lowell, Adam J. Smith, Gregory North, Robert Picardo, Clinton Derricks-Carroll, Barry Pearl, Bradford Tatum, Ellis E. Williams, Jason George and Adolphus Ward in Pasadena Playhouse's production of TWELVE ANGRY MEN.Is this a horrible production? Not even close. It’s just an odd production, and a missed opportunity to prompt an authentic discussion on racism. The real travesty occurred after the show with a post-play discussion about racism and the judicial system. Is it unfair to notice that there were no white people on the panel of five? An embarrassingly awful moderator called the honorable Judge Lance Ito a “world icon” and then referred to Sheldon Epps as Sidney Sheldon. The tepid conversation prompted by this play—indeed, everything that happened on stage at the Pasadena Playhouse—is yet another Band-Aid placed over a pernicious wound that needs surgery if it is ever to heal.

photos by Jim Cox

Twelve Angry Men
Pasadena Playhouse
39 South El Molino Avenue in Pasadena
scheduled to end on December 1, 2013
for tickets, call 626-356-7529 or visit http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org/

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