by Rita Charleston
On the heels of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin trial, GoKash Productions is presenting a spin on the powerful courtroom drama “12 Angry Men.” It opened July 16 and will continue through July 28 at Plays and Players Theatre, 3rd floor studio, 1719 Delancey St.
Typically performed with a cast of 12 white men, this presentation features a cast of 12 African-American male and female actors. One of those actors, known simply as Juror Number 11, is Elizabeth Priestly, 28, who was raised in Erdenheim and attended Philadelphia Montgomery Christian Academy and who knew she wanted to be an actress since she was about four years old.
“I used to sneak out of bed to watch old movies on TV,” she said last week. “I imagined myself being in front of a camera and playing different characters. And my oldest sister, who attended the same school I did, was in plays at school, so I would go see her and her friends up on stage. It all came together and made me know I wanted to do that too.”
And so she did, eventually graduating from Ithaca College’s Musical Theater program, and making her New York stage debut in 2004 at Playwrights Horizons’ world premiere of “The Yellow Wood.” Since then she has appeared in numerous productions, including a national tour of “Seussical the Musical” as the Sour Kangaroo with Theatreworks USA and much more. For now, Priestly says she’s thrilled to be part of this production of “12 Angry Men.”
In this play, what seems like an open-and-shut murder case becomes a twisted puzzle of prejudice and intrigue. The 12 jurors in a murder trial are corralled in a room for the duration of their deliberation. As prejudices are tested and evidence is weighed, the entire jury is forced to look past the show of the courtroom to unearth the shocking truth. Faced with playing the hangman, these dozen jurors must first face themselves.
According to Priestly, not only is performing in this play intriguing, but so was the audition process needed to get this far. “Normally, when auditioning you are handed the script and told to read the lines,” she explained, “but for this audition Ozzie Jones, the show’s director, put us into groups of 12 without any script and told us to just make it all up.”
Looking back, Priestly thought she might have had an upper hand since, ironically, during her teen years at a summer camp, both boys and girls appeared in a production of “12 Angry Men.”
“As the foreman in that play, I was familiar with the story, and I think that helped me in my approach at the audition,” the young actress said. It may have, but in any case she is now Juror Number 11, who was portrayed as a European man in the movie, but this time around, this character is a woman from Rwanda, accent and all.
“We specifically chose Rwanda because we wanted to bring that background, that genocide that happened in her country, into play. After going through all that she went through, we felt to put her on a jury in a murder trial would be very interesting,” Priestly said.
Additionally, the director urged his cast to view the film, which starred such luminaries as Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb and E.G. Marshall. “That’s not because he wanted us to copy what we saw, but rather to watch this great group of actors and see how they managed to play off each other.”
The 1957 film is also notable for its almost exclusive use of one set, something duplicated in this production. Said Priestly, “We are 12 people in a room who are basically strangers, so we have to find a way to develop some kind of chemistry between us, which is important but also very challenging.
“And in the end, I think the audience will be blown away by the ideas that Ozzie has come up with for this production.”
Tickets are available at the box office. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org