Photo credit Carol Rosegg
In this Tony-nominated one-man play, Laurence Fishburne portrays Thurgood Marshall, a venerable figure in the fight for civil rights.
Verve and historical veracity
By George Stevens, Jr.
Directed by Leonard Foglia
Through July 20
222 W. 45th Street
By Scott Harrah
One-man shows are never easy for actors, especially when the subject matter is serious. Nothing is more emotionally powerful than stories about the early days of the civil-rights movement. In “Thurgood,” Laurence Fishburne takes a sensitive topic and turns it into an illuminating and ultimately entertaining evening about the life of Thurgood Marshall, the African-American lawyer who won one of the most groundbreaking legal cases in American history, and went on to become the first black man appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
From the moment Fishburne walks on stage he is riveting, and he manages to sustain marvelous energy throughout this 90-minute monologue without an intermission. This is no easy task considering that the script is less than perfect, the material drags in parts and Fishburne occasionally blows a line or two, though he’s always 100% convincing.
We learn about Marshall’s rough childhood in Baltimore during the ugly days of segregation, his early days as a lawyer, a scary trip to Tennessee during which he was almost lynched by the Ku Klux Klan and how he fought to get African-Americans admitted into the University of Maryland’s law school. His greatest achievement was winning “Brown vs. Board of Education,” a Supreme Court case that ended segregation in the public school system nationwide.
Fishburne is that rare actor who can plausibly portray a character at various ages. He shows us Marshall as both a young lawyer and as an 83-year-old man delivering a lecture at his alma mater, Howard University. Fishburne is poignant in the play’s most sobering moments and appropriately amusing when cracking jokes about such things as the way President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1967.
The script, by George Stevens, is potent most of the time but definitely needs some tightening. The problem is that there’s very little dramatic tension throughout the show. Some of the details about Marshall’s personal life, such as the tragic death of his first wife, seem tacked on when they really should be explored with a bit more depth. Biographical pieces are always difficult, but the narrative provides just enough back-story to shed new light on Marshall. There are some bits of filler that do little to propel the story forward, such as Marshall reciting his views of various Supreme Court cases. Regardless, it is Fishburne’s stellar performance that gives the show’s sometimes-mundane dialogue badly needed verve and historical veracity.
Leonard Foglia directs Fishburne satisfactorily, but it’s tough to make any one-man show lively. A backdrop of an American flag, designed by Elaine McCarthy, is set on the back wall of the stage and is used to project images from Marshall’s life at certain times. It does not add much to the show, but still gives the set an important visual anchor. When Fishburne is addressing the Supreme Court, some reverberating sound effects are used that seem more annoying than effective and add little to the show’s dramaturgical intentions.
Such technical wizardry is really not necessary, however, because Fishburne is enough of a gifted showman to make the play’s occasionally dry moments seem provocative. Whether he’s waxing nostalgic about his greatest cases in the Supreme Court, joking about Southern racists or gleefully telling a humorous anecdote, Fishburne gives one of the year’s best performances, and does dramatic justice to Thurgood Marshall, a venerable figure in the fight for civil rights.