November 20th, 2021
Led by Ms. Heatherly Stephens, a rotating cast of high school students took the stage from the 8th-11th of November, 2017, to perform a theatrical adaptation of a 1959 American courtroom drama film titled “12 Angry Men”. The posters plastered around campus, however, advertised the show as the “12 Angry Jurors”.
This piece was one that prompted discussion. Readily willing to open that discussion was Ms. Stephens, the director of the play herself. On the Wednesday afternoon before the opening of the show, artistic decisions and more profound topics were discussed in the hidden fourth-floor drama room.
A One-Room Show
Laudable productions set in one single location are hard to come by. Those who stopped by the auditorium, however, were treated to just that.
The rarity of such performances stems from the fact, that it’s inherently difficult to entertain an audience for so long in the boundaries of a set as rigid as that. And “That’s why the dialogue is important”. Ready with logical solutions, Ms. Stephens was not one to shy away from such a challenge. Not only relying on wordplay, the director had also picked a script that was embedded with motion. “We need movement in there to keep the humans engaged”. Ms. Stephens had assembled a means for the action and the words to make up for the austerity in format.
Speaking with cast member Nikki (10), that seemed to hold true. Acknowledging the pressures that ensued the setup of the play she said, “At first we definitely found it hard to sort of keep in engaging because everyone was sort of sitting in one room”. She, however, reinforced the director's perspective by saying, “it’s all about the sort of subtle movements instead since it’s all set in one room.”
The Visual Elements
As the conversation progressed, Ms. Stephens portfolio of responsibilities in the play grew to be limitless. “We have mint walls… brown and mint striped… I really like food you know” Ms. Stephens, the woman who was at the helm of all costume and set decisions, was describing the color palette of the one room set.
It was also revealed that a cinematographic remake of the 1959 film had occurred in 1997. The presence of these two films opened up the artistic possibilities to two different time frames. That meant two different eras of interior design to draw inspiration from. When asked which set she’d been influenced by more, Ms. Stephens answered with neither of those years. “In my mind, it’s set in 1977, not overtly though”.
It quickly became clear however that the greatest influencer of the set wasn’t the timeframe, it was the practicality and the atmosphere that Ms. Stephens was creating the set towards. “It’s supposed to be a rundown sort of a place… There’s patchwork… With the set, it’s a really cool box set. It just looks like the back of something. Nothing really moves. They need to be trapped in it.”
A Progressive Piece
The original film of this plot consisted of an all white and all-male cast. Despite this skewed tableau of what a fair courtroom should look like, the film scored 100% with Rotten Tomatoes. When the second 1997 version of the film was brought up, the topic of race and diversity in gender was inevitably brought up as well.
Between the 50s film, the 90s film, and the play, there are a few apparent contrasts. The plot, however, stays constant. A teenaged boy from the slums is put on trial. He is accused of the stabbing and ultimate death of his father. The panel of jurors all vote guilty, save one juror who breaks the unanimity. It is this juror number eight’s decision that causes the rest of the jurors to stay and ruminate for the one hour that becomes the play.
But the difference comes in the appearances of the jurors. In 1959, the panel consisted of white men. In 1997, the panel consisted of white and black men. Today in the lesser known high school production, the panel consists of a racial and gender diverse cast of jurors. And that leads to the question so relevant in the justice system today. The illustration of the HKIS cast itself was a clear indicator that casting decisions were not something that had been influenced by either of the two films. “I’m afraid of what’s happening in my country, America.” The strained exasperation in Ms. Stephens voice at this sentence was evidence that this play served to be more than a four-day entertainment. She wanted the audience and her actors to leave with a newfound understanding of the world. “I think it’s a great teaching tool, for my actors … and for the people who come see it”.