How to Get Kind-hearted and Sympathetic AATL Kids to Embrace the Anger of a 50s Jury Room…

Words by Mr. Jack Penrose

2:32pm is a difficult time to bring drama to a bunch of talented – and exhausted – teenagers (not to mention the fragile condition of this Spanish and French teacher whose coffee supply has waned by that point); but I have to say that working with the Upper Division Theatre Class has brightened my day and has left me utterly inspired by the incredible work ethic, passion and joy of educating these fine young men and women.

The scene is a dramatic makeshift theatre of Melech, which we have converted into a hot, sticky New York jury room from the 1950s. Eleven jurors are convinced that the boy on trial is guilty of murdering his father, yet one juror disagrees. This juror has the Herculean task of convincing the others (a veritable group of angry, frustrated and malleable jurors) that she is right and the young man on trial is indeed not guilty.

What I love most about this play is the constant building and rebuilding of tension. While the play does not have the high-octane appeal of a The Fast and the Furiousmovie, it does include many moments of thrilling drama; a fight almost breaks out, threats are made and a re-enactment of the murder almost goes wrong. What I also love is that the themes that are explored in this production by Reginald D Rose are as relevant today as they were back in 1957 when it was written. The underlying tones of racism, justice, xenophobia, truth, resilience and “fake news” become quite prevalent indeed as the twelve jurors decide the fate of a young murder suspect, with the evidence questionable and the sanity of the jurors on a knife edge.

Seeing as we are – to quote one of my actors – ‘woke,’ I have cast some outstanding women in roles traditionally played by men in the original play; though I have changed the genders of the characters to inadvertently add a layer of female empowerment but also reveal the subtler tones of sexism that were evident in the 1950s. I have really enjoyed this different element to the play and hope that the audience will respond to it.

My experiences are that a “short game is a good game,” so I have edited and cut the script down to under an hour of running time to expedite the story but maximise the tension. There are a few small “easter eggs” and references to modern day that I hope the audience will spot, but I have really endeavoured to keep the setting of the play firmly rooted in a 1950s New York that would allow women to be jurors (unlike the real 1950s!).

What I hope that the cast has taken away from this thespian experience is how fortunate we are to have a judicial system that selects, screens and provides a jury to help decide the fate of defendants, but they will have also learnt how tough it is to concentrate and focus for a straight hour of acting where there are no real scene changes; having to remain in character is incredibly challenging even for five minutes, let alone for a whole hour! This production will have definitely improved their discipline, focus and tempo while acting and I’m very excited for everyone to see it.

I am nothing without my very talented cast, all of whom have worked tirelessly to entertain you. Furthermore, the “behind the scenes” team for this production has also put in the hours to put on a very interesting production. I would like to thank them all for their hard work and support because all I really did here was show up!

To view pictures from the performance, click here.

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