Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Illusion Theater
Review by Kit Bix | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Citizen: An American Lyric, Safe at Home and The Awakening

James Craven
Photo by Lauren B Photography
James Craven is such an astonishingly good actor. What a pleasure it was to watch him channel Justice Thurgood Marshall at the Illusion Theater's remount of Thurgood the other night. The 90-minute bio-play by George Stevens, Jr. has a very short run this time around, but if you can get to the Illusion before it closes on March 19 it will be well worth the trip. If you are a legal history buff, you will enjoy hearing about the landmark cases in which Marshall had a role. If you are not (into legal history), you will still not be bored for a second. And you will learn a whole lot while watching Craven work his stage magic.

The show is set in 1992 in a lecture hall at Howard University Law School where Justice Marshall stands behind a lectern and reminisces about his life, his career, and his monumental legal victories. In highly descriptive language, he evokes the world of his childhood and reflects on the experiences that shaped his principles and personality, and led ultimately to his becoming the first African American elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hearing about the constellation of influences and experiences that shape illustrious figures is always fascinating. The son of a steward at an executive club and a kindergarten teacher, Marshall grew up in West Baltimore during the first decades of the twentieth century. His father, William Marshall, loved the law and would go over current cases with Thurgood at night, describing the lawyers' arguments and then challenging the child on what he had learned. Meanwhile, at high school, Thurgood was smart, but not exactly a teacher's pet. His punishment for misbehavior was to read sections of the Constitution. By the time he graduated, he had the whole thing memorized.

That is one part of the story. The other is his growing awareness of the power of law. "The law is a weapon," Thurgood learned at an early age—legal recourse was not only a powerful means of remedying structural and legalized racism; it was the single most forceful mechanism for redress.

After Marshall graduated from Howard University Law School, Civil Rights leader Charles Hamilton Houston recruited him to work for the NAACP. As early as 1934, Marshal scored his first major civil rights victory, representing the NAACP in the law school discrimination case Murray v. Pearson. The story behind the case, as narrated by Craven as Marshall, provides one of the most absorbing segments of the play, and gives us a glimpse of the young lawyer's brilliant legal mind. It goes like this (as this non-lawyer understands it): With Marshall as lead lawyer, the NAACP represented one Donald Gaines Murray, a black college graduate with flawless credentials, who had applied to and been denied admission by the University of Maryland Law School. Marshall's strategy was to use the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to challenge the credibility of the "separate but equal" doctrine—a doctrine that had been established by the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson, and that had been used as a justification for maintaining segregation. The gist of Marshall's argument was that since the State of Maryland did not offer black students a legal education that was comparable in quality to that of the University of Maryland, the state was in violation of the "separate but equal" requirement. The upshot? The court ordered the University of Maryland to integrate its student body immediately, and the decision established a broader legal precedent that made segregation in Maryland schools illegal.

Of course, it was Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark case that ended legal segregation of public schools, for which Marshall is best known. Craven takes us through the development of that case from start to glorious finish in great detail—and it is an even more gripping narrative.

Admittedly, Thurgood does not provide a deep three-dimensional portrait of Marshall the human being. Aside from two brief anecdotes about his first wife, Vivian Burey (after Vivian died from cancer, he would marry Cecilia Suyat, a marriage that would last until Marshall's death), and one reference to his children, the play focuses exclusively on his legal career and on his contribution to the development of civil rights. But if Stevens does not flesh out the private Marshall (or his psyche), he does give a rich sense of the justice's charm and winning sense of humor. Marshall, as it happens, was a champion storyteller and the play is rich with his anecdotes about his years at Lincoln University, where he befriended and hung out with poet Langston Hughes, and his friendship with President Lyndon Johnson—who did not spare Marshall his famous practical joking.

It is a lively, inspiring, and, at moments, deeply moving show about a great American—performed by one of the Twin Cities' finest actors. You should go—and bring your kids, if you have any. They need to see this one.

Thurgood by George Stevens, Jr., through March 19, 2017, at Illusion Theater, Cowles Center for Dance & The Performing Arts, 8th Floor, 528 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55403. Tickets can be purchased by calling 612-339-4944 or at

Directed by Michael Robins

Featuring James Craven
Set Design Dean Holzman
Lighting Design Michael Wangen
Original Music & Arrangement Roberta Carlson
Jon Carlson Projection Designer
William Harmon Stage Manager
Aaron Schoenrock Technical Director

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