12 Mo' Angry Men is the story of 11 black jurors and 1 white juror, deliberating on the guilt or innocence of a white police officer who shot and killed a black teen. It is a new and timely reimagining of 12 Angry Men, the classic play and film. It will have its premiere at Newark's Theater in the Park, as part of the city's Summer Fun Events with performances on July 23 & 30, and August 6 & 13, 2021.
Written and directed by TaNisha Fordham (co-producer of the 2018 Oscar Nominated, "My Nephew Emmett,") and produced by Enlightened Visions the production was a part of Fordham's continual attempt at curating art as resistance.
The idea of updating this classic play caught our eye immediately, so we reached out to TaNisha to learn more.
Tell me about reimagining "12 Angry Men" with the setting of 11 black jurors and 1 white juror for a case involving a police officer who shot and killed a teenager. Was there one specific incident that inspired this production or was it more the cumulative amount of incidents?
I was really inspired by listening to the audio staged reading of "12 Angry Men." I was taken by the honesty of Reginald Rose's writing. I happened to be listening to this on a bike ride, one day, only days after hearing about George Floyd's murder. Minding you, I've been deeply impacted by all of the deaths by members of my community throughout the decades. I remember vividly sitting in my living room, in North Carolina, with my mom and husband when the verdict was read for George Zimmerman concerning the Trayvon Martin case. At that time, I was a recent college graduate. I couldn't believe that Trayvon would receive no just --- little baby. I have, particularly since that case, been so saddened by each of the cases proceeding. Writing, "12 Mo' Angry Men," was a way for me to have a conversation with all of the people I have been wanting to talk to about this very pressing issue. Writing this allowed me to speak with people that I may have never otherwise had the opportunity to talk to --- the vast array of opinions are represented in these characters, and I was able, therefore to have the ugly, hard, unpleasant conversations but in a very honest and unbridled way.
I'm sure there are people who will doubt the jury makeup, but it's the flip side of juries faced for decades. Is there something powerful about simply seeing a jury makeup like this for a crime?
There is absolutely something powerful about seeing this jury. I think that the most powerful thing to consider is that black people aren't a monolith. And, we often assume that if the jury makeup were different then, "well of course ---" we can, within reason, assume what the outcome would be. That may or may not be the case. "People are people... Some good, some bad --- " That's a line from the play but also, it's the absolute truth. People have opinions, all kinds of them --- some we agree with, others we don't. And those opinions come in all kinds of racial, economic, gender, religious, etc. packages. Also, the makeup of the jury is a reflection of where the script is taking place. The setting is a town in Mississippi where the population is 80+ percent black. In a city more populated by African Americans, the likelihood of there being a more African American jury grows.
This courtroom drama presents a classic scenario, but was it a bit daunting to remake a play that's been ingrained in theatre lore for so long? Or was it easier than you thought it might be when you first envisioned it?
It wasn't daunting at all to make this production for a few reasons. First of all, Reginald Rose was an absolute genius. It's hard to mess up something that is so masterfully done to begin with. I am just in awe of the foundation that Reginald Rose laid in the original. I felt, genuinely, like the piece called to me and said, "It's time to rework this for today." Another thought -- I sat in front of my computer screen and the script literally poured out of me. Every word, every thought, every moment that every character has needed to be said, thought, had. I don't take any credit. All credit belongs to God and Mr. Rose. I was so thankful to have been called to this work.
In this video, you point out that "black people are not a monolith" - how important was it for you to incorporate different viewpoints among the jurors in this play?
This was, besides shaking up people's perspectives of police officers, one of my top concerns. I want to be clear about the fact that we are a sorted bunch. The truth is, every bunch is. We tend to look at people through a very one dimensional lens. The truth is if there are 100 black people in a room you are likely to have 100 different perspectives on any given situation. Yes, there may be some shared strands of thinking or experience or culture but by and large every human being on this earth is completely different from the next. That's what makes humanity so beautiful --- particularly if we'd allow it to be so. I think about my husband and I: married for 12 years, went to the same college, same race, only 3 years apart in age, same religious and faith convictions and yet --- in so many ways --- we are exact opposites. Our race, religion, age, background (to a certain extent) may be shared --- but the God-particles that make us who we are, are unique. And we are therefore, in the most beautiful ways, very different. And, I wouldn't have it any other way.
We don't often hear about young black girls being shot and killed. Is this something you're trying to bring attention to as well?
My Juror 4, played by Rashad Wright (former Poet Laureate of Jersey City), brought up in rehearsal a super challenging poem in rehearsal. The poem by Porsha Olayiwola entitled, "Rekia Boyd," sent a chill down my spine. Even as I was writing, "12 Mo' Angry Men," it never dawned on me that the Nasi character could or should be a girl. I did audition young girls and boys for the role, but I never really stewed on the need for the story of young, baby girls, to be told. Why can we all run down a list of young men: Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Freddy Gray, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant --- but most of us have access to Sandra Bland's name and maybe Rekia Boyd. That's not acceptable. Especially when it's happening to our baby girls, too. I'm so glad Shad brought this to my attention. It became something that was top of mind and top priority once he did. We actually had double-cast Nasi. Nasi was being played by Jamyjah Wilson, a junior at Newark Collegiate Academy and Jaden Charles, also a junior. I had a conversation with Jaden about the need to tell this little girl's story, he completely understood and joined the production side of the play. Now, Nasi is only being played by Jamyjah.
What do you hope the audience takes away from the production?
I'm a Jesus girl so I always hope that people take God away from productions. This is a dark world that we're living in, sometimes. We're up against an infinite amount of challenges and struggles. We have really beautiful, kind, gentle, caring cops on one side of the issue and really terrible, horrible, evil, ill-intentioned cops on the other. So, what do we do? Do we defund the police? What about our neighborhoods with no one to protect them? What about the officers who do love and protect the communities they're policing? Do we keep silent, hoping that something changes? What if it doesn't? These are problems that are as old as man, so I'm leaning on something bigger than us to solve the problems. Truly, we are the problem. Also, I'm hoping that this production is a great conversation starter. So many of the things that are taboo to say --- we say them. So many of the things that no one wants to hear --- the characters shout them. And so, from a place of unapologetic truth and revolution, I hope that we are able to begin talking, honestly. I hope that this brings us an opportunity to heal. And, I hope that as we heal individually that we can begin to heal collectively and move the needle in the direction of a better world. We will have community resources available as well: members of various community organizations that can point our guests in the right direction towards building community (positively), we will have a prayer table, also -- we are hoping that the outdoors environment will encourage people to interact with one another and build community, authentically in that way.
Have you done any plays performed outside in Newark before? Was it difficult to get permission for the space?
I have done plays in Newark before but not outside. We are doing this in association with the city of Newark. We're doing it as a part of their #backtogetheragain initiative. The city, specifically Trevor Phillips the senior manager for special projects, was very supportive in our endeavour. There are dozens of events being sponsored by the city for their summer fun events: drive in movie nights, weekly block parties --- it's a very exciting list of things to get involved in, in Newark this summer.
This is the premiere of the play and it sounds like you have interest in bringing it to different parts of the country. Are additional shows set as of yet?
We have been selected for NYCs WinterFest (originally Summerfest but because theaters aren't yet opened, they pushed it back). Which is slated to be at the Hudson Theater in the late fall/early winter (dates dependant upon theater openings). Additionally, we are talking to the Bishop Arts Theater in Dallas, Texas -- under the Artistic Direction of Mrs. Teresa Coleman Wash.
You seem so passionate about Newark. What can you tell people about the art scene in the city?
I love Newark. What's not to love? Newark is a community place. When I think about Newark I think about it's people. Newark's people are the best part of the city and the art community. I am such a people person so the city just jives with my soul. I work at a school full of the best human beings to ever walk this earth: from the principal Sharmaine Lewis a young black woman, to every staff member and student -- it's all so inspiring. Seeing people walking in their brilliance and design challenges me to do the same. I think about the bike group that I ride with RBG Cyclist --- it's a collective of bikers (mostly black and brown people) who bicycle together at least 2 times weekly, and we go everywhere: all throughout Newark, the Oranges, NYC, everywhere. How could I bike all throughout the tristate, surrounded by the people that I consider family, and not be inspired to create. Newark is art. The streets sing with cars and people talking and laughing. The buildings tell a story of perseverance, restoration and reimagination. The people are resilient, honest, unfiltered (in the best ways), and kind. Again, the art scene is so dope because the people are so dope. Art is created by artists. The artists are living in one of the dopest cities in the world surrounded by other dope people so it's all amazing.
TaNisha Fordham, co-producer of the 2018 Oscar Nominated film, “My Nephew Emmett,” is a writer, director, performer, educator, and content creator who, in 2019, was honored to have served as Mrs. New Jersey United States. Additionally, Fordham recently completed a residency with Rutgers University and their Express Newark CMC (filmmakers) Program, as well as a Director’s Intensive with Steven Broadnax III with Roundabout Theater (Broadway).
Fordham has written, directed, and produced over 40 original productions, spanning several mediums, over the past 14 years through her company. This year she had her feature - documentary, directorial debut, with, “Queen,” which premiered at the Pan-African Film Festival (the largest international festival featuring stories that pan the African diaspora). Fordham is currently one of the ensemble members at The Goodman Theater, of Chicago, in their “InterGens,” program which lifts the voices of a diverse and intergenerational group of creatives. Fordham has the distinct honor of being an educator, and in addition to her various creative endeavors, Fordham is committed to her theater and film students at Newark Collegiate Academy in Newark, New Jersey – Fordham considers her work in education to be some of the most sacred work that she is privileged to do. Tea’s mom: Pam, hubby: Rob, dog: Scoop, and grandparents: Freddie and Monte are her biggest inspirations and Jesus Christ is at the center of all she does.