“A child born to a Black mother in a state like Mississippi… has exactly the same rights as a White baby born to the wealthiest person in the United States. It’s not true, but I challenge anyone to say it is not a goal worth working for.” – Thurgood Marshall
While Laurence Fishburne’s skin is several hues richer and his rounded features less severe, the celebrated thespian incarnates Thurgood Marshall with little more than the tap of a cane, a navy suit and the trailblazing lawyer’s signature spectacles.
The eponymous stage production reveals more of Marshall – the nation’s first Black Supreme Court justice – who publically appeared stoic, if not undaunted by hulking court cases and social issues he advocated. Instead, the play paints Marshall as a man emboldened and haunted by America’s legacy of separatism and, likewise, conflicted by the social ills he saw firsthand growing up in Baltimore.
The play, written by George Stevens Jr. and directed by Leonard Foglia, brings depth to the former NAACP lawyer’s life, which is often highlighted by his landmark nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. But Thurgood reveals both the commendable and flawed elements of the lawman, whose onslaught against the “separate but equal” doctrine revolutionized America’s education system.
Audiences learn Marshall drank alcohol, sometimes excessively, in his most pained moments and made no qualms about his fondness for women. However, these moments of despair, which Fishburne most notably displays while recounting the death of Marshall’s first wife to cancer, are tempered with mention of his prosperity.
But the former U.S. solicitor general’s personal gains were born out of harsh realities. With chameleon-like fluidity, Fishburne traverses through pivotal moments of Marshall’s adult life while reflecting on spirit-crushing memories from the desegregation pioneer’s childhood. He’d been called a nigger, watched White jail wardens pummel African-American inmates from his schoolyard and forced to urinate outdoors because public bathrooms for Blacks were scattered.
These experiences are inconceivable to younger generations, but Fishburne’s nuanced acting – embellished only by a backdrop of photo stills – drives home the feelings of humiliation and urgency that later fueled Marshall’s success. The award-winning actor also develops an intimacy with the audience from his first moments on stage as the elderly, but mentally agile Marshall. “I have a lifetime appointment and I intend to serve it. I expect to die at 110, shot by a jealous husband,” Fishburne says.
He goes on to recount Marshall’s family lineage – which included a sundry of unusual names and headstrong businessmen – without the textbook-dry soliloquies that plague many one-actor plays.
Early on, the monologue is peppered with ironic humor and several attention-grabbing choice words, making the play an entertaining voyage into history for teens and adults, but a questionable choice for young children.
Nonetheless, Fishburne captures Marshall, a domineering civil rights icon best known to younger Americans through history books, with humor, realism and nostalgia.
“Thurgood” runs through June 20 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ Eisenhower Theater. Visit kennedy-center.org for ticket information or call 202-467-4600.