Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 30, 2008
Thurgood A play by George Stevens, Jr. Directed by Leonard Foglia. Scenic design by Allen Moyer. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Brian Nason. Projection design by Elaine J. McCarthy. Sound design by Ryan Rumery. Cast: Laurence Fishburne.
That's exactly what happens to this statement, and so many others, in new play at the Booth. Thurgood, written by George Stevens, Jr. and directed by Leonard Foglia is biography so dusty that logic dictates it shouldn't be able to exist outside the confines of PBS (and not during Pledge Week). But though you already know everything it's got to tell you, you can't help but feel you're learning it all for the first time because of the two men who have joined forces at its center.
Trailblazers, however, always fascinate, and it's tough to find many who broke more new ground in the 20th century than Marshall. His primary claim to posterity might be as the first African-American justice appointed to the Supreme Court (by President Lyndon Johnson, in 1967). Yet his more lasting contribution to the fabric of race relations was as the chief counsel for the National Association for the Advance of Colored People, for whom he argued - and won - the landmark 1954 desegregation case of Brown v. Board of Education.
Stevens tracks Marshall from his unassuming beginnings (a wise schoolteacher "punished" his misdeeds by forcing him to read the Constitution) through his education at Howard University under the tutelage of Charles Hamilton Houston, through his triumphs before the Supreme Court to his place on the bench itself. Central to his rise to prominence is the Court's 1896 decision Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the constitutionality of "separate but equal," and which is the major obstacle he must overcome to win the equal footing he seeks.
If Marshall's descriptions of slowly dismantling that ruling make for surprisingly effective drama, Stevens hasn't parlayed them into an equally exciting portrait of the man behind the legend. This Marshall is the type who stands on the steps of the Court building, awed by its motto "Equal Justice Under Law." He speaks in self-actualization phrases like "Without the ballot, man is not a citizen," and "Sometimes I get a little bit weary of trying to save the white man's soul." Foglia's stuffy staging does little to dissuade the view of Marshall as a gooey-centered, garden-variety crusader and not a robust individual worthy of the integrated world he helped create.
Were it not for Fishburne, the show around him that sticks strictly to safe, surface-level insights about Marshall would be as thrilling as the LexisNexis search used to dig them up. But Fishburne brings blood and fire to his otherwise cold-as-gold role, making the part more than a walking and talking obituary.
It doesn't start out that way. Fishburne looks a bit silly early in the evening, wearing curly grey hair and thick-rimmed glasses that set up a hoary framing device of a retired Marshall lecturing at Howard. (This also gives scenic designer Allen Moyer few opportunities; a conference table and a projection screen, on which Elaine J. McCarthy displays key images from Marshall's life, are the extent of the visual accoutrements.) But when the artifice falls away and Marshall journeys into memory, Fishburne becomes a much more magnetic guide, as well as a more youthful one. (Fishburne is 46, the same age Marshall was when the Brown decision was announced.)
Tales of helping black Texans attain the right to vote take on an understated urgency when told without a hint of proselytizing. Confronting the discriminatory tendencies of General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War becomes an unexpected comic interlude as rendered through slightly exaggerated personalities. And arguments before the Supreme Court ring with the resounding weight of history when delivered with Fishburne's firm baritone.
His voice and onstage grace supply much-needed authority to all the standard-issue reminiscences he must recount, and give Thurgood what little heat it has. If it's too bad that Stevens settled for turning a unique American hero into just another figurehead, it's comforting that a charismatic star has helped get at least some of that distinctiveness back.