The Verdict Is In
You, the Jury invites the audience to join them on a journey toward justice
There’s no questioning that there’s an absence of malice in the Piccolo production of You, the Jury. The play, written by Anne Coulter Martens in the 1960s, is an ambitious project — an unconventionally structured one-act that involves the audience, as they determine the outcome of the trial that takes place in a generic courtroom setting with no definitions of where or when the drama unfolds.
The force behind the play is Burke Community Education, a group with the commendable goal of involving the vibrant surrounding community in collaborative efforts while simultaneously beefing up Burke High School’s drama program; the school currently has no active theatre department.
This is a real shame, as the Burke auditorium is a beautiful, huge, state-of-the-art space that must hold at least 500 audience members, maybe more.
While the cavernous room wasn’t close to full for Sunday afternoon’s Piccolo debut of You, the Jury, there was a small section right up front where people sat arm-to-arm, staring raptly at the sometimes confusing action taking place on stage. These were the 12 jury members (and one alternate), volunteers from the audience who were chosen for the panel in a roughly 30-minute-long “jury selection” process that began the two-hour show.
Before the lights went up on the stage, a man had come around and politely asked people if they’d be interested in being part of the jury. Little did they know they’d be grilled on their personal backgrounds by Judge Vance (You, The Jury director Whitfield Sims Jr.), prosecuting attorney Slater (Angeleka Manigault), and defense attorney Drexler (Karen Thompson).
Watching the 25 potential jurors step up and give their names and occupations was possibly the most interesting part of the show — at least six teachers were in the pool, including a gentleman from Tasmania, along with a food scientist from Nestlé, and a man who manufactures mine-resistant all-terrain vehicles for the government. It was hilarious to witness their dismissal or selection, in a seemingly arbitrary decision-making process, by the judge. (A sample of the judge’s reasoning: “I like your glasses. Now you will serve on the jury because I like your glasses.”)
After the whittling, the 13 sat in a cluster at the center-front of the audience for the big show. A 20-year-old man named Bill Hughes (Gerrell Richardson) is accused of stealing $2,500 from the wealthy woman who employs him as a part-time gardener, and a group of people have gathered in support of both sides. In the first half of the play, the prosecution presents their case. Manigault has a booming voice and no fear of using it, often overpowering her (unnecessary) microphone. Besides Manigault’s continually crackling mic, the overall sound at Sunday’s production left something to be desired, as two mics were accidentally not turned on before the show.
Despite bearing the trademarks of community theatre — low production values, slightly wobbly acting legs, a few overzealous line-shouters — all of the performances were entertaining, and it’s obvious that the actors are having fun in their exaggerated roles. Keep an eye on the stenographer, played by Burke Health Science teacher Valerie Nesmith — her facial expressions and little gestures are priceless silent commentary on the zany action going on around her.
Speaking of zany action, after a short intermission, the second half of the play heats up when it’s the defense’s turn on the stand. The mother of the accused, played by Burke Community Education Director Deborah Counts, gets a little miffed at the prosecuting attorney and launches a shoe, Jerry Springer-style, at her head. Each side presents three witnesses, none of whom can produce hard evidence as to what happened to the money. The result is a case built on circumstance, leaving the jury of audience members to decide whether Hughes is guilty or innocent.
The show offers an interesting commentary on our often effed-up judicial system, and it’d be cool if there was some interaction with the audience members after the decision comes down. Either way, god bless the BCE group for getting the community thinking and (literally) acting. —Sara Miller
YOU, THE JURY • Piccolo Spoleto’s Theatre Series • $15, $10 seniors and students • (2 hours) • June 7 and 8 at 7 p.m.; June 9 at 4 p.m. • Burke High School Auditorium, 244 President St. • 554-6060