Senior creates new theater group to put on “12 Angry Jurors”
Open Dialogue Theatre hopes to promote tough conversations through its performances
When AU Players canceled their spring 2019 production of Reginald Rose’s “12 Angry Jurors,” last year, Julia Harris, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, ventured to put on the play independently.
Harris said her commitment to making her artistic vision come to life inspired the creation of Open Dialogue Theatre, a new performing arts organization dedicated to open discussion and communication through its productions.
“Why not? What’s the worst that could happen?” Harris asked herself throughout the process. taking artistic liberties with staging and set design.
“12 Angry Jurors,” the group’s first production, was performed from Feb. 28 to March 2. The play spotlights a jury’s deliberation of a 1954 homicide trial, featuring varying levels of racial discrimination.
Harris said she had been drawn to the play since middle school for its commentary on prejudice and contemporary society. Having reread it during the 2016 presidential campaign, she was “caught by how much of this language, [more than] 50 years later, is exactly the same.”
“I looked first to the AU Players for assistance, but I was planning from the beginning that if they weren’t going to help me, I was going to start my own organization in order to do this show,” Harris said.
During the initial interview process, Harris and the AU Players executive board discussed how to treat race in the play, considering the racial breakdown of casting and ways to recruit a diverse cast. Open Dialogue Theatre technician Sullivan Haine said Harris told AU Players that she could not guarantee that certain characters would be played by students of color because she ultimately couldn’t determine who would audition for the production in January.
Then, on Aug. 23, AU Players released a statement announcing their decision to cancel the show, citing its reconsideration of its values as an organization.
“Due to the themes of [the play], the intersection of race and the criminal justice system, we need to be more intentional and specific in our presentation of these conversations and ideas,” they wrote. “AU Players is dedicated to creating a community where the voices of artists of color are welcomed and valued in every capacity.”
“12 Angry Jurors,” as originally staged in 1958, featured only older, white men onstage. Harris made several changes, including setting the play in modern D.C. and making specific casting choices.
“Luckily, we were able to have a pretty diverse cast, both in terms of race and in terms of gender,” Harris said.
Olivia Smith-Elnaggar, who plays Juror #12, said the original script had one or two characters who are unmistakably German, which causes conflict with other jurors in the story.
“We’ve made conscious efforts to think about other demographics who would be in similar positions as that character, so we were thinking about casting a Middle Eastern or Latinx person in that role instead to bring light to conversations about immigration and xenophobia and things like that,” Smith-Elnaggar said.
Heather Adams, who plays Juror #8, said that Open Dialogue Theatre is unique in its mission to create dialogue, which has been shown from as early as the first rehearsal, which included a full cast discussion of the play’s themes.
“It’s scary how relevant all of the issues still are, but it obviously creates amazing discussion,” Adams said. “[Open Dialogue Theatre] is an awesome theater experience, and on top of that, you know that you’re probably gonna learn something from it to… probably about yourself.”
This article originally appeared in The Eagle's March 2019 print edition.