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A CurtainUp Review

Oh, let America be America again.
The Land that never has been yet —
And yet must be —the land where
—every man is free.
— Langston Hughes, who was once Marshall's classmate.
Lawrence Fishburne
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Ever sit through a history lecture and find yourself just a little ashamed because you're bored even though it's about vitally important and inherently dramatic historic events and characters? Thurgood, the solo play that just opened for a sixteen-week run at the Booth Theatre IS a lecture, but with Laurence Fishburne as the lecturer, you're not likely to be bored. Even if you're acquainted with the story of Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993), the descendant of slaves and our first African-American Supreme Court justice, Fishburne makes this hour and forty minute both informative and entertaining.

That's not to say that Thurgood introduces us to new material. There are several Marshall biographies in print and this play is actually a re-conceived, more tightly focused stage version of George Stevens Jr's 1991 made-for-TV film Separate but Equal. That 3-hour epic was essentially a courtroom drama highlighted by the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education United States Supreme Court decision which set the stage for the civil rights movement of the 1960s and Thurgood Marshall's appointment to the Supreme Court in 1967 (it featured Sidney Poitier as Marshall and Burt Lancaster as his opponent, John W. Davis, and is still available as a DVD).

Neither does the format of a lecture given by an aging Marshall at his alma mater, Howard University, take the theatrical monologue to new heights. However, this is powerful stuff that deserves our attention again and again, especially given our present Supreme Court and political climate.

Of course this history lesson dressed up as a play with a single actor can only work if that actor is charsimatic and persuasive enough to ignite, or re-ignite, our interest in Thurgood Marshall's inspiring story and the exciting times he lived in. Fishburne has charisma to spare. And the audience at the performance I attended responded to him with warm enthusiasm .

A mustache and horn-rimmed spectacles are used to create a very loose physical link to the real Thurgood Marshall. But what Fishburne aims for is not a look-alike portrait. What he's after, and achieves, is to capture the man's sense of humor and charm as a raconteur, as well as his fierce passion for the law as the most effective weapon for fighting injustice.

Fishburne enters the stage on a cane, which is abandoned as he embodies his more youthful persona. He addresses us as stand-ins for the students at the Howard University lecture hall, as indicated by a sign above the Booth's proscenium. The anecdotal ramblings cover his early life in Baltimore. We learn how he shortened his given name Thoroughgood to Thurgood in second grade and how an appreciation for the Constitution of the United States was instilled in him by his father, a railroad dining car waiter, and at the Baltimore school he attended where misbehavior was punished by having to read parts of that document. But the meat and potatoes comes with his emergence as a civil rights lawyer and his most famous and far-reaching argument before the US Supreme court (Brown versus the Board of Education).

As one listens to Fishburn-cum-Marshall recall the highlights of his eventful life one is reminded how historic battles for freedom and justice are often most effectively fought by men who use the rules of law as their weapon. Leonard Foglia and his crafts team have provided Fishburne with a stage environment that allows him to move around and give his narrative a fluid pace. While the images projected by Elaine McCarthy onto a giant Jasper Johns-like silver flag are visually compelling and enhance the sense of being at a Broadway show, they don't really add anything especially significant to the storytelling.

Mr. Stevens has astutely distilled the pertinent details of his much longer film for his first play. It's a sturdy enough script, but reliant on its star to give it depth. While it's understandable to include some opportunities for Fishburne to inhabit other characters, the some comic business about General McArthur and the Korean War seems superfluous and its elimination could have tightened the performance to clock in at the listed 90 minutes (it runs about ten minutes longer than that).

While I'm on the script, I think Stevens might have given Earl Warren a bit more credit for his role as the chief justice presiding over the Brown vs. the Board of Education hearing. It's true, as Governor of California during World War II he was politically accommodating to anti-Japanese feelings, but it was also his convincing the two dissenting voters to change their minds that made the decision so much more powerful for being unanimous. Also, while the audience ate it up, a joke about an upscale black executive on a commuter train from a tony suburb is a blatant bit of borrowing from the comedian Godfrey Cambridge. Happily, a more apt and properly accredited borrowing from Marshall's Howard University schoolmate Langston Hughes (see quote at top of review) is used for Fishburne's quietly graceful exit.

Baltimore is certainly having a high visibility season on Broadway. Baltimorian film maker John Waters now has two of his films adapted as Broadway musicals— Cry-Baby and Hairspray. The latter's heroine, Tracy Turnblatt, does her own bit for racial equality. While Fishburne's Thurgood Marshall doesn't dance and sing, his compellingly told story is a worthy addition to shows with Baltimore settings. Maybe the time is now ripe for a play about the very quotable Sage of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken.

by George Stevens Jr.
Directed Leonard Foglia
Starring Laurence Fishburne
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
Stage Manager: Marti McIntosh
Running Time: Approximately 100 minutes without intermission
Booth Theatre 222 West 45th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue) 212/ 239-6200
From 4/12/08; opening 4/30/08; closing 7/20/08--extended to 8/17/08.
Tickets $96.50 to $71.50
Tuesday - Saturday @ 8pm, Wednesday & Saturday @ 2pm, Sunday @ 3pm
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at April 26 press matinee
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