In many ways, this weekend's free performances of "12 Angry Jurors," an adaptation of the classic film and play "12 Angry Men," at Round House Theater Silver Spring is a unique intersection of theater and community activism.
The play was adapted and ultimately produced through connections and personal relationships developed through IMPACT Silver Spring, a nonprofit organization that promotes community leadership among residents of different cultures. It tells the story of a collection of men and women of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds grappling with the fate of a Puerto Rican youth tried for murder.
"One of our goals is to raise awareness of race and class, and what better way than to see a play like this," said Frankie Blackburn, IMPACT Silver Spring's executive director.
"12 Angry Men," written by Reginald Rose, was first produced in 1954 as a television drama. Henry Fonda had the story translated to the movie screen in 1957 and took the lead role, that of a lone holdout juror who votes to acquit the young man and persuades the other 11 one by one to switch their votes. Rose later adapted "12 Angry Men" for the stage, still with an entirely white and male cast. But it has been updated in its new version by director Ayana B. Wylie, a 22-year-old Howard University acting student.
The project is the brainchild of David Vega, 49,of Silver Spring, an attorney turned first-time theatrical producer, who feels the play's central character, Juror No. 8, creates a message still meaningful a half century after he first appeared.
"He is able to cause these guys to stop and think, to critically evaluate the facts on their own merit and, most important, to strip away bias and preconceived notions about race," Vega said. "And that's what IMPACT tries to instill in people."
Co-producer Marianne Zimmerman, 59, a consultant and Silver Spring resident, had contacts at Round House Theatre through her involvement with IMPACT on the downtown Silver Spring revitalization project, an important component of which is the theater company's new annex on Colesville Road. "When she knocked on their door to talk about this, they were very receptive," Blackburn said, noting that the theater offered free use of the facility.
The play's supporters hope its production will spark community dialogue. "Not only do we want this play, Ayana's vision, to be seen but we also want it to be a teaching tool," Vega said. "So, at the end of the Saturday night program, we'll raise the house lights and have the audience ask questions and maybe get a community discussion going."
Vega said his wife, Yvonne, a former president of IMPACT, convinced him several years ago that it was time to give back to the community after 15 years of practicing law. He participated in IMPACT's nine-month Community Empowerment and Involvement Program, designed to produce community leaders, and has spent the year and a half since trying to produce the play.
"David's passion was trying to figure out how to use his love of theater to highlight some of the continuing injustices he sees as a practicing attorney," Blackburn said.
During the months of rehearsal, life has imitated art, said director Wylie, who assembled a cast of acting students from Howard, a few longtime community theater participants and some first-time actors. The faces are African American, Latino and white, their backgrounds big-city and suburban.
"They're living out some of what the play is about, and they're dealing with a group of people who come from very different backgrounds," Wylie said.
"It's so diverse around this table," said Timothy Haywood, 21, Juror No. 4, a Detroit native and Howard student. "You're looking at the person next to you, like, 'How did me and you end up sitting next to each other?' It's crazy, but it's fun and it's cool."
Wylie, who spent several years studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles, had to find ways of loosening up her cast during the early weeks of rehearsal, getting them to let their guards down amid strangers they might usually eye with reserve or even suspicion.
"I would have cast members leave the room and pick something they felt very strongly about and then come back in and stand in front of everyone and talk about their topic," she said. "Then the other cast members would attack them and their opinions, like, 'That's so stupid, what are you talking about?' They'd get into real big arguments, and then I'd say: Now go to your lines. That's where you need to be, with that same emotion behind the text."
The play is a riveting portrayal of the dynamics at work in the secrecy of the jury room, with most of the jurors ready to send the young defendant to his death without thoughtful deliberation. Age, bigotry, economic circumstances and cultural differences affect their decision-making. Under Juror No. 8's prodding, however, each of the jurors eventually struggles to view the case objectively.
Juror No. 8 is played by Nyahale A. Allie, a 22-year-old African American Howard student. Her primary nemesis, the gruff and angry Juror No. 3, is played by environmental activist Bill Prindle of Silver Spring, a 54-year-old white man. The nontraditional casting seems appropriate because the central characters are opposite in temperament and outlook.
But the other 10 characters, the original play's white men of 1954, obviously do not share the same sense of their place in the culture as do the multicultural people of Silver Spring in 2004. Some of the dialogue and motivation must necessarily be changed to fit this altered reality. But changing a masterpiece is a daunting exercise, and at a recent rehearsal it seemed as though some dialogue did not quite ring true coming from the face speaking it even though the cast was generally acting quite capably. Vega believes the audience will overcome such notions, saying he will judge the success of the production by what happens after the play is over.
"I would say the nature, variety and extent of the questioning at the community forum after the Saturday night show will tell us how well we've stimulated the audience's minds," he said.
The public is invited to a dress rehearsal of "12 Angry Jurors" at 7 p.m. tomorrow at Round House Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd. Saturday's performances will be at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., with an open audience/cast discussion after the evening performance. For more information, call 301-495-3336.