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With a theater program as accomplished and talented as that at Guilford High School (GHS), thinking outside the box and taking on challenging new productions doesn’t mean an excess of flash and pomp.
That’s the attitude that director and department coordinator Cara Mulqueen-Teasdale and her crew of more than 150 students are bringing into their fall stage presentation of 12 Angry Jurors, a gender-neutral adaptation of the 1950s teleplay 12 Angry Men that offers a stark, minimalist portrayal of conflict and bias in American society, telling a story that remains deeply relevant in today’s political and social climate, according to Mulqueen-Teasdale.
The play will run Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 7 to 9, at the high school.
“It’s such an old play, but I thought it was really, really topical,” said Mulqueen-Teasdale. “Because it deals with some of the flashpoints that I think culturally we’re dealing with in the United States right now—what is truth, how do our biases influence how we perceive a situation, what do we have as a responsibility to a community, how do we either welcome or keep distant newcomers?”
Taking place almost entirely in a single room, featuring 12 members of a jury who remain nameless as they ponder the merits of a capital criminal case that involves issues of racism and justice, the play will offer a unique challenge for the GHS theater program and a story with political depth and nuance for audiences.
Mulqueen-Teasdale said they decided on this production due the “incredible writing” of the play, and after an evaluation of the resources and talent the program brought into this year. From both the technical and acting side, she said she liked the challenge of presenting something that was fully grounded in realism, placing students in the position of engaging constantly and deeply in the intensity of their circumstances.
“We talk in soundbites a lot—[students] see programs in soundbites, and they like catchphrases and stuff, and this is a little bit more extensive,” said Mulqueen-Teasdale.
“I’ve never done a play like this where you’re just alone in a room for 90 minutes,” said Veronica Zimmer, who plays one of the nameless jurors. “That’s very new to me.”
Zimmer said she had been a fan of the 1954 film adaptation of 12 Angry Men well before the school talked about putting on the play, and she was drawn to the unique qualities required to portray her character.
“It’s honestly kind of brutal,” said Christopher DeNegre, another juror. “Like it’s a very difficult play, at least in my opinion. It’s very draining, in the sense that there’s lots of action in...how the characters interact.”
As they consider whether or not to send an impoverished 18-year old black boy to death row for an alleged murder, jurors in the play begin to reveal their own biases and backgrounds, dealing with interpersonal conflicts and debating fundamental concepts of justice and fairness.
Mulqueen-Teasdale said that even though the play was written in the 1950s, she hopes these sorts of ideas and conflicts make an impression on today’s audiences.
“I think that I would want people to take away from this...is that through discussion, through calm, through listening, through good people working together through some challenging issues, that solutions are there and that all we have is each other,” she said.
Though Mulqueen-Teasdale emphasized that there is nothing overtly political about the play, she acknowledged that the personal conflicts that arise from grappling with these issues, especially when interacting with people who have very different views than you, can be difficult. She said that challenge is also something her actors have been exploring in their craft.
“I think we’re ready for something like this,” said DeNegre. “I feel like at least recently with the changing political landscape, I feel like more people are political.”
The aspect of bias, which is a very prominent exploration in the play, is something in the forefront of the actors’ minds as well. Karl Brooks, who plays a juror deeply affected by his racist beliefs, said that he viewed that as the real heart of the play.
“You can live your whole life justifying your beliefs, in the way that you see the world,” he said. “But they way you tear a belief system apart...is by asking, what’s your reasoning? What lies behind it, what’s beyond just your surface level answer?”
Zimmer said that the play addresses that universality of prejudice through her character, who is an educated, analytically minded stockbroker, but is revealed to still fall prey to her preconceived ideas.
“Everybody, regardless of your profession, can have a bias,” Zimmer said.
Actor Aidan Henry said he identified most with the play’s exploration of fundamental tenets of law and justice—how it works, or how it should work in the United States.
“I think really it’s just going back to the classic movie...this is just a classic piece, and really what it’s about is just what you’re taught as a kid, about the American justice system and taking that seriously.”
One of the great things about the play is that all of these ideas are important parts of the production, according to Mulqueen-Teasdale.
“It’s not on any political spectrum. It’s really on a humanities spectrum,” she said. “It’s not preachy at all. It’s a really lovely piece of writing.”
For more information or to purchase tickets ($10), visit ghsta.weebly.com.
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