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Q&A: ‘Twelve Angry Men’ demands innocent until proven guilty at Ford’s

WASHINGTON — In 1957, “12 Angry Men” gave Henry Fonda an iconic role and Sidney Lumet his directorial debut in one of Hollywood’s most revered movies, ranked by experts among the American Film Institute’s Top 100 movies and by fans as No. 5 all time in the IMDB poll.

Its one-room setting makes it perfect for the stage at Ford’s Theatre now through Feb. 17.

“It’s a classic,” actor Erik King told WTOP. “I’ve seen it a number of times, but with [director] Sheldon Epps’ wonderful shepherding of the piece, it’s a different piece. Personally, I think it’s more dynamic than the film because the film is cinematic and we have a multiracial cast.”

Based on the 1954 teleplay by Reginald Rose, the plot follows the heated deliberation of eight jurors weighing the evidence in the case of a 16-year-old boy accused of murdering his father.

“We are all in the jury room trying to decide the fate of a young defendant,” co-star Michael Russotto told WTOP. “In our production, half of the cast is black and half of the cast is white, which is fascinating because there’s hardly any changes made to the script at all. The script takes on some really interesting new tones even though none of the words have changed.”

Russotto plays the bullheaded Juror No. 3, who’s leading the charge toward a guilty verdict.

“From the way the case is presented, the evidence makes him appear guilty,” Russotto said.

“Oh do you?” King replied, in character.

King plays Juror No. 8, the loan holdout suggesting that there might be reasonable doubt.

“For Juror No. 8 it’s not whether or not he’s guilty or not, it’s just about the opportunity to hear the case and to take a look at the evidence,” King said. “I think this kid deserves a fair shake. There’s something about the idea that this kid may have killed his father and the fact that he is so young, he just deserves a chance. That’s all I’m asking them, just to have a conversation.”

The conversation involves issues of race and class reflected in the formal vs. casual wardrobe.

“There are some biases,” King said. “There’s the argument that he’s guilty, it’s clear that he’s guilty, and I say, ‘Based on what? Based on who he is? Or based on what happened?’ … We have a juror who has a sense about who ‘these people’ are — ‘these people.’ In many ways, the piece reveals who each one of those characters is, just based on where they come from.”

Beyond personal prejudices, the cramped setting ramps up the irritability late on a Friday.

“Some people want to get out of the room because it’s hot,” Russotto said.

“It’s claustrophobic,” King said. “I’ve spoken to people who have served on juries. When you sit there and listen to the evidence and try to suss it out, your desire to move on comes rather quickly, especially when it’s the end of the week. I’ve heard so many people say on jury duty they kind of just want to get it done. … When somebody’s life is on the line, how fair is that?”

Creating this cramped space is the job of scenic designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz.

“Much of the set is taken up by the table itself, which is shaped like a guitar pick,” Russotto said. “The colors, those industrial grays and metallic surfaces, it’s not a warm environment certainly. There’s an indication that it’s kind of stuffy and hot. The windows don’t open. … And we’re told that we are locked in the room at the beginning of the play. The door is locked.”

Thus, the audience feels locked in with them, save for an intermission between the two acts.

“We don’t have the restroom conversations that take place in the film, so we’re on stage the entire time and, to some degree, the audience is held captive the same way we are,” King said.

While audiences experience the drama in real time, the actors have put hours of foresight into its creation, thanks to Epps’ painstaking rehearsal process in the run-up to the play.

“He did strongly suggest that we create a back story for our characters, so that based on what’s in the text, you lift that out and interpret that and make some choices about where the character is coming from,” Russotto said. “His gentleness, smarts, ability to create a warm, safe rehearsal environment, especially when you have a concept like this, where honesty is possible, you’re free to fail and you’re free to succeed, you can’t ask for more than that.”

That rehearsal included plenty of time to sit and talk outside of their characters.

“The other thing that Sheldon did [was] to have this group of African American and Caucasian actors in the room together for well over a week when we just talked about our personal experiences,” King said. “It allowed us to find places that are really uncomfortable. … We had an opportunity to look around the room and identify something that we didn’t like about each other. Who wants to do that in the first week? … That was really about assumptions.”

Now, it’s your turn to bring your assumptions and weigh the evidence for a killer night out.

“It’s a hugely exciting night in the theater,” Russotto said, to which King added, “Sheldon has a great vision for the piece … because he knows how to kick it up in the audience as well, to kick up people’s emotions. … I won’t [spoil] the votes come down, but there comes a time when it gets uncomfortable, and I think he is bold and brave enough to put the thing in the room.”

Find more details on the Ford’s Theatre website. Listen to our full conversation below:

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