Redressing history

Reu [Paulina Salas and the Practice] Photo: Cheeranat Chiarakul

Two new plays have examined the notion of 'justice'. One digs into the political history of Chile and Thailand, the other takes us inside an American jury room

Reu (Paulina Salas And The Practice)

Sineenadh Keitprapai of Crescent Moon Theatre has created some powerful and affecting works about women, the female body and social justice. Her latest production, Reu (Paulina Salas And The Practice), which ended its four-day run at the Crescent Moon Space on Sunday, melded Chilean-American playwright Ariel Dorfman's Death And The Maiden with memories and materials relating to the Oct 6, 1976, Thammasat University massacre to tell stories of justice delayed and denied. Although Sineenadh had an intriguing concept and there were memorable moments in the show, she robbed Dorfman's play of subtlety and space for imagination with distracting choices and heavy-handed direction.

The play began with what seemed like a warm-up for a rehearsal of Death And The Maiden. We witnessed scenes straight from Dorfman's plays interspersed with scenes related to Thai history and politics. In Death And The Maiden scenes, Sineenadh and actress Farida Jiraphan both played Paulina Salas, Sineenadh playing the more hysterical version of the character and Farida the frostier one. The two actors (Pasakorn Inthuman and Saifah Tanthana) switched between the roles of Paulina Salas' lawyer husband Gerardo Escobar and Roberto Miranda, a doctor Paulina believes to be her rapist. The constant switching of roles unnecessarily distracted our attention and brought no new meaning to the play. And the choice to present two sides of Paulina screamed the director's message right in our face.

Sineenadh kept spelling out her messages for us throughout, like when Paulina became a ghost-like presence, haunting the oblivious Dr Miranda as he denied the charges. The most bothersome scene had to be the doctor's confession. In the script, the audience only hears the confession from a recorder while the characters and the rest of the stage fade into darkness. But in this staging, the actor was physically visible; everything about him reeked of guilt. And we were left with no room for interpretation.

While Sineenadh's treatment of Dorfman's play felt bombastic, her handling of the Oct 6 massacre was simple but bold. In one scene, the actors read parts of the transcript of the late Samak Sundaravej's 2008 interview on Al Jazeera, in which the then–prime minister denied the facts of the Oct 6 massacre long agreed by historians and human rights groups, calling them "dirty history". In another, the four performers recounted their childhood memories of the event. They were all children at the time, but their recollections revealed how a horrific incident that spanned a single day had seeped into the mundane days and years that followed.

12 Angry Men Photo: Suphasit Tanprasertsupa

Twelve Angry Men

Culture Collective Studio's fourth production brings back the 1955 version by Reginald Rose. Many are familiar with the film, but the writer originally wrote the story as a teleplay before adapting it for the stage. Twelve Angry Men was turned into a film in 1957, directed by Sidney Lumet and with a screenplay by Rose. In all the three versions, the defendant is an 18-year-old Hispanic boy, accused of killing his own father. Here, African American director and founder of Culture Collective Studio Loni Berry brought the play into present-day America and replaced the Hispanic defendant with an African American one.

Before we meet the 12 jurors, we see a video montage of African Americans' past and continuing struggles for social justice. It begins with Martin Luther King Jr's "I Have a Dream" speech, followed by a speech by President Barack Obama about change, then a campaign-rally oration by Donald Trump about the unemployment rate among black youths. The video ended with footage of police brutality against young African American men and women.

We never see the face of the defendant on stage. The video not only sets the play in the present and in a very specific context, it indirectly gives the defendant a face, a voice and a story shared by many like him and casts him as a victim of an unjust system.

As heartbreaking as the video is and as necessary as it is to show and witness the violent reality lived by many African Americans, I wish Berry had also explored the long and complex history of racial discrimination in the jury selection of the American criminal justice system. I wonder whether the video casts the jurors -- of various racial backgrounds, except black -- as having prejudices against black people. Are we being primed to perceive these 12 men based on their racial backgrounds, none of which are the same as that of the defendant? And shouldn't we the audience be given the space to presume the "innocence" of these jurors whose words and actions are about to be judged by us?

Berry made necessary but minor changes to the dialogue and scored the two videos and the play with the iconic voices of Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone, singing To Be Young, Gifted And Black and I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free respectively, bringing both poignancy and hope.

As is usually the case with English-speaking productions in Thailand, the cast is a mix of the experienced and the less experienced, but the actors have great chemistry and are able to make a wordy two-hour play hop along at an entertaining pace.

Berry's choice to stage Twelve Angry Men as a mirror and commentary on racial inequality in the US sends a hopeful message, for ultimately it's about the triumph of reason over emotion, over prejudice and hate. To me, the most revealing and powerful moment in the play is when Juror#10 (excellently played by Vega) changes his verdict minutes after his racist tirade against black people, which is met with both overt disgust and quiet disapproval by other jurors.

Berry's Twelve Angry Men affirms the painful and undignified reality of many African Americans. The continued relevance of the play proves that racism still exists. But the play's true success is in its rejection of the notion that our capacity for compassion for perceived "others" is limited by our race.

Twelve Angry Men continues today until Sunday at 8pm, at Culture Collective Studio, Floor 3, Chatrium Residence Riverside. Tickets are 800 baht. Call 08-9876-5400, email info@culture-collective.com or visit www.culture-collective.com. The play is in English with no Thai subtitles.

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