‘Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Barack Obama said in 2013, reacting to the case of the unarmed black teenager fatally shot by George Zimmerman in 2012. (Zimmerman, of mixed white and Hispanic ancestry, was subsequently acquitted, which sparked Obama’s remark.)
By the end of the year, director Sheldon Epps had his own reaction. Epps was running Pasadena Playhouse in California at the time, and he wanted to fill an open slot with a play that somehow reflected America’s latest chapter of fraught race relations. Reginald Rose’s 1950s jury drama “Twelve Angry Men” leapt to mind — and what if this time, half of the jurors were black?
“Without changing the text, we found incredible resonances,” says Epps, who is now staging the play at Ford’s Theatre with new actors but the same stark divide of six and six, black and white. “It turned out to be a way to say to an audience, ‘We must acknowledge that these tensions still exist to get past them.’ As the characters in the play do, we must learn to talk and listen. It’s a phrase I use with the actors all the time: ‘I don’t want you to act. I want you to talk, and listen to each other.’ ”
It can be a contentious business, revising the racial balance of American classics. See last month’s flap over casting black actors in supporting roles for an upcoming Broadway revival of “All My Sons,” and also note how Aaron Sorkin has augmented the black characters for the new Broadway stage version of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“Twelve Angry Men” is another iconic mid-20th-century script, originally a teleplay and best known for the 1957 movie version that earned the playwright an Academy Award nomination. The heavyweight cast was led by Henry Fonda as the noble Juror 8, the lone holdout as the jury considers the death penalty for an unseen young man charged with killing his father. Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Martin Balsam, Jack Klugman and Jack Warden played characters ranging from disinterested to frankly bigoted, sifting evidence and blunderingly revealing moral blind spots.
Yet the script has long been recast in different combinations that sometimes even get reflected in the titles (“Twelve Angry Jurors,” “Twelve Angry Women”). A 1997 TV version starring Jack Lemmon, George C. Scott and James Gandolfini also included Ossie Davis, Mykelti Williamson and Edward James Olmos.
Epps, whose long TV résumé includes “Girlfriends” and “Frasier,” knew this varied history. He didn’t initially plan on a half black and half white cast, but came to it gradually as he considered favorite actors at Pasadena Playhouse (where he wrapped up a 20-year tenure in 2017). Epps believed that the drama hadn’t really aged.
“There is language in this play that you may have heard in a CNN report the night before,” he says. That informs the set and costumes at Ford’s, where, Epps says, “It’s going to look like tonight.”
But the biggest driver was what’s clearly implied in Rose’s play: that the unseen defendant is a kid of color.
“It’s always been about racial issues; we’re just heightening what Rose wrote about,” Epps says. “He was specifically writing about how the American justice system is different for white Americans than it is for Americans of color. Frankly, just theatrically, I wanted that six-to-six moment when they realized that that’s how the vote had come down.”
To skeptics who might think that means the script’s bad guys are the white guys, Epps counters: “Then they’re all bad guys, except one, at the beginning of the play. Do we come to our choices and decisions with different timing? Based on different information? And based on getting over things in different ways? Yes, we do. That’s a reality of this society.”
In 2013, he didn’t exactly meet with resistance to the concept. “There were people who were upset by it, or agitated, seeing it — which is different,” says Epps, who agreed when Ford’s director Paul R. Tetreault suggested that times are contentious enough to warrant doing the show again. “Good. Both the content of the play and this concept of the play are intended to agitate, and to get under people’s skin.”
Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. 888-616-0270. fords.org.
Dates: Through Feb. 17.