nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 1, 2008
Thurgood Marshall, who was the grandson of a slave and rose to become a justice on the Supreme Court of the United States, is an inspirational and important figure in recent American history, someone whose life story deserves to be told and remembered. A good place to learn the basics of Marshall's contributions is this online biography which concludes by saying "Justice Marshall established a record for supporting the voiceless American," surely one fact (of many) worth cherishing in an America where voiceless Americans seem to get less and less support from their government every day.
Alas, George Stevens, Jr.'s biodrama about Marshall, titled simply Thurgood, tells us not much more about this remarkable man in its 90-minute running time than the four paragraph article that I linked to just now. I don't want to discourage audiences from seeing this show, because its message is valuable and the information it imparts may well be stuff you missed or have forgotten. We need to recall that up until 1954 (!) the doctrine of "Separate but Equal" was the law of the United States of America; that a man like Marshall couldn't travel safely in the South for much of his adult life—couldn't expect decent accommodation at a restaurant or hotel or even a drinking fountain—solely because of the color of his skin, until the landmark case that he argued before the Supreme Court, Brown v. Board of Education, reversed centuries of denial of basic civil rights to African Americans.
But I'd be lying if I said that Thurgood was anything other than perfunctory. It walks through the important events of Marshall's biography dutifully but unfeelingly, shedding very little light on what kind of a man he was (indeed, seeming to shy away from anything personal or potentially controversial). The approach is straightforwardly chronological, which is a safe but dull choice for the playwright to make in organizing the material; the play's climax is the Brown decision, which pushes the many important subsequent achievements of Marshall's career into the denouement in sadly abbreviated fashion.
Laurence Fishburne stars in this one-man play, and he does as fine a job bringing Marshall to life as the script allows. (I have to confess to one reservation about the performance I saw, however: just before the climactic moment when the result of the Brown decision was to be announced, Fishburne went up, apparently either forgetting his next line or worried by the absence of a needed prop; in any event, he stood silent and stock-still for what was probably a minute but felt like much more; his failure to recover from whatever problem occurred proved enormously distracting.)
Stevens's framing device for the play is a good one—that Marshall is speaking to a group of students at his alma mater (Howard University) near the end of his life. Allen Moyer has provided a very appropriate set (and Jane Greenwood's costumes are just what they need to be: a suit eventually accessorized with a black robe). But Elaine J. McCarthy's projections, which illustrate some of the stories and ideas imparted by Marshall, feel like an overblown PowerPoint slide show and take us out of the play almost every time they're displayed. Leonard Foglia, the director, keeps the show moving at a fairly brisk pace but doesn't really seem to have addressed the innate deficiencies in Stevens's script.
Which is most unfortunate, because this is a true American story that should inspire art as impressive as itself. Perhaps one day it will.