We owe a debt to Laurence Fishburne and playwright George Stevens Jr. for bringing a great man to life in "Thurgood," and putting him vividly, if too exhaustively, on the stage of the Booth Theatre.
History is really little more than a series of biographies, carefully selected and woven together - but a lot of the details get swept under history's rug.
I thought I knew quite a bit about Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first black judge to be appointed to the Supreme Court. I was wrong.
In fact, President Johnson's epoch-making appointment in June of 1967, plus a few misty details, was actually all I did know about a man whose life story helped change history.
Now, through Stevens' one-man play and Fishburne's carefully layered, wholly convincing performance, I discovered a great deal more about that solitary, benignly wise figure who featured at the time in dozens of photographs of the nation's Supreme Court.
When Johnson, a tireless campaigner for civil rights, appointed Marshall to the nation's highest court, he declared it "the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man and the right place." Marshall was the 96th appointee, and the first black, since the court's creation in 1789.
The play is set toward the end of Marshall's life, when he delivers a speech at his alma mater, Howard University, something like a commencement address, but less overtly inspirational and a good deal more friendly.
As written by Stevens and played with a twinkling, self-deprecating good nature by Fishburne, Marshall - with his armory of jokes and anecdotes - must have been one helluva good after-dinner speaker.
Most of what he has to tell is admirable yet predictable - a hardscrabble childhood, parental sacrifice, a fierce unyielding ambition, a splendid intellect and a natural legal mind, all of it essential for the journey from the back streets of Baltimore to Washington's corridors of power.
The problem of the evening - an intermissionless 100 minutes - is that, while it's undoubtedly a triumph for Fishburne, there is only one character, one tone, and neither tension nor climax. Stevens comes from the world of movies, but he doesn't seem to know much about editing.
Quite simply, a little less might have meant a lot more.
It’s a safe bet that “Thurgood” is the only play on Broadway at which the announcement of a famous legal verdict is greeted by a burst of heartfelt applause.
Does that make it sound less than thrilling? Well, yes, this solo show starring Laurence Fishburne as the venerated Thurgood Marshall is a no-frills documentary in the first person, essentially an opportunity to watch a movie star deliver a history lecture. But since Mr. Fishburne is an effortlessly compelling actor, and the history in question is charged with a moral urgency that still resonates today, “Thurgood,” which opened Wednesday night at the Booth Theater, is surprisingly absorbing, at times even stirring.
For audiences nostalgic for the progressive era in American history in which Marshall played a crucial role, the show may actually feel like a sweet escape to happier times, every bit as cheering (and a whole lot more edifying) than the giddiest of Broadway musicals. At the end of the play Marshall recites from a Langston Hughes poem opening with the following line: “Oh, let America be America again.” If those words elicit either a sorrowful sigh or a stirring of fierce hope in your heart, you may find this superficially dry evening of theater as restorative as a long soak in a bubble bath.
That brief contribution from Hughes is about the extent of the play’s lyricism. Written by George Stevens Jr., a writer, producer and director of television and film making his debut as a playwright, “Thurgood” is not distinguished by psychological depth or dramatic intensity, although it has been given a tasteful production by the director, Leonard Foglia. (The stucco-colored flag sculpture that doubles as a video screen is a nifty touch from the set designer Allen Moyer, presumably inspired by Jasper Johns.)
Mr. Stevens, who wrote and directed the mini-series “Separate but Equal,” about the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, has studied his subject thoroughly and with passionate interest. He may cling doggedly to linear chronology, textbook style, but he does have the smarts to use verbatim quotations from Marshall as often as he can, seasoning the trek through autobiography and legal procedure with anecdotes that reveal Marshall’s playful sense of humor.
While arguing a case of discrimination against black servicemen in Korea, for example, Marshall slyly criticized Gen. Douglas MacArthur for denying that he approved the segregation of those under his leadership. Pointing to the regiment’s all-white brass band, Marshall observed, “Don’t tell me you can’t find a Negro who can blow a horn.”
Mr. Fishburne enters as an aged but still vigorous Marshall, retired from the Supreme Court and returning to Howard University, where he earned his law degree, to give a speech. (The University of Maryland, which had the best law school in his home state, would not admit blacks; one of Marshall’s early civil-rights victories helped end that policy.)
The black-framed eyeglasses, the halting step and the cane are dispensed with quickly. Mr. Fishburne’s Marshall sheds the infirmities of age as he plays tour guide to his illustrious past, and he doffs and dons his jacket as his recollections vary in formality.
After a few minutes of colorful family history (the Marshalls were partial to lively names like Fearless and Olive Branch; Thurgood was the young Marshall’s own revision of a longer handle, Thoroughgood), Marshall tosses out a question that draws the focus to the courtroom cases that shaped his life and led to the reshaping of American law and indeed American society. “How many of you’ve heard of Homer Adolph Plessy?”
Not ringing a bell? It was the Supreme Court’s 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, Marshall reminds us, that gave federal legal sanction to “separate but equal” public facilities for the country’s black and white citizens. Although he is probably best known today as the first African-American to sit on the Supreme Court, Marshall’s profound impact on the culture derives from the long series of legal cases he won (and occasionally lost) as chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The battle to end the sanctioned racism enshrined in the Plessy decision culminated in Marshall’s victory in the Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954, which laid the legal groundwork for the civil-rights movement of the next decade.
If Marshall’s life story is related with no great theatrical invention here (the artful “Primo,” written and performed by Antony Sher, was a far more stylish stage memoir), the plain facts inevitably stir powerful feelings — of admiration for his steadfast championing of the ill-used, of delight in his ability to find humor in dark circumstances, of dismay at the recalcitrance of institutional discrimination in America. With the presidential candidacy of Senator Barack Obama putting a renewed focus on the legacy of racism, as it is viewed by Americans both black and white, the play serves as a healthy reminder that separate drinking fountains, to cite one shameful practice, are just a generation or two in the past.
The role does not allow Mr. Fishburne to draw deeply on his rich resources as an actor, even if it requires significant stamina. (The play clocks in at 90 minutes.) The smoldering gravity he brought to his roles in movies like “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and the “Matrix” trilogy is replaced by a more genial variety. Mr. Fishburne also brings a subtle physical dynamism and a sly humor to the role, which gives the material a useful buoyancy.
“Thurgood” naturally climaxes in the scenes depicting the arguments and the verdict in the Brown case. The last half-hour or so, taken up with Marshall’s later career as a federal judge, as the country’s solicitor general and as a Supreme Court justice, almost feels like an afterthought. Eventually Marshall plops down in a chair and simply starts reviewing his general opinions on significant cases from his tenure on the high court, sometimes in language bathed in banality. (“Sure, we know how far we’ve come — but we also know how far we still have to go.”)
This passage does, however, serve as a stark reminder of how radically the court evolves over the years as its makeup changes. (I’d almost forgotten that for a period of several years during Marshall’s tenure, capital punishment was illegal in this country.) Depending on your view of the jurisprudence practiced by the court when Marshall served, and of the kind on view today, the reflections “Thurgood” evokes may be sobering or even dispiriting.
But the heroism of Marshall’s life’s work and the hard-fought civil-rights victories achieved under his stewardship are truly uplifting. As I left, I found myself misty eyed, recalling a celebrated line from a speech by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that I have always found moving, in which he cites a belief that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
A few minutes into "Thurgood" and he's got the audience eating right out of his hand. While that image may serve to describe the star power of Laurence Fishburne, it applies just as well to the late Thurgood Marshall, the subject of this one-man show penned by George Stevens Jr. The first black justice of the Supreme Court was the kind of character you can really take into your heart.
The educational tone comes naturally to this piece, which takes shape as a lecture the retired justice is delivering at Howard U. Leaning heavily on a cane and taking a slow, deliberate route around the long, solidly sculpted library table supplied by set designer Allen Moyer, the aged Marshall addresses the audience as presumptive students. And boy, do we have a lot to learn.
The known facts about this public figure are easily plucked from the text supplied by Stevens, who may be a first-time stage scribe, but comes by his solid skills via a long career in film. Those bio facts are effortlessly delivered by Fishburne -- a theater animal (winning a Tony for "Two Trains Running") before he became indispensable in Hollywood -- who knows how to burnish a piece of exposition until it shines.
Thurgood Marshall, the facts tell us, was born in Baltimore in 1908; earned his law degree from Howard U.; served in Korea; made his legal reputation on key civil rights cases; was appointed to the Federal Court of Appeals by John F. Kennedy; became Solicitor General under Lyndon B. Johnson, who also advanced him to the Supreme Court; and as the first African-American justice, went on to serve on the court for almost half a century.
Even in summary, the biographical facts are impressive. But they are only the bare bones of the play, which was originally produced in 2006 at Westport Country Playhouse (starring James Earl Jones) and has legs to go where it will in the future. The heart of the play, rather, is the character who emerges from the historical shadows to give voice to his own remarkable life story.
And what a voice it is -- wise and warming; chuckling with good sense and humor; proud and passionate at the right moments; resonant with pain when it matters; and honest as the day is long.
Fishburne is such an imposing stage presence (even hunched over a cane, he exudes strength) that it's a bit of a shock to register the full range and texture of that narrative voice. Folksy like a fox, he adopts an avuncular tone that shouldn't fool us chickens -- but does, all the same -- into following him wherever he leads this tale.
In a nice stroke of subtle showmanship, helmer Leonard Foglia ("Master Class") does his subject the courtesy of reversing the aging process for him. Marshall does show his years when he begins his "lecture." But if it's an old man who looks back at the historic events of his life captured by Elaine McCarthy's projections, it is a younger, more robust man who turns back to the audience to relive those moments.
Ever mindful that he is instructing a young generation in their own living history, Marshall chooses his moments shrewdly, from the early jobs that shaped his character to his leading role in the definitive court case of Brown v. the Board of Education that ended school segregation. He also pays homage to the people who made him what he is, including his father, his grandmother, his Uncle Fearless, and that heroic unknown Homer Plessy, who wouldn't sit in the "colored" section of a railroad coach and dared to take his case to the Supreme Court in 1896.
That was the case, Marshall says, that taught him the law existed for everyone, or at least for everyone who learns how to use it. If the man wants to concentrate on passing on that lesson -- instead of, say, going into the drinking and womanizing that dogged him throughout his life -- well, this is an educational show, after all. He spares us the juicy gossip and leaves us with enormous respect for a man and his values.