A few minutes into “Thurgood” and he’s got the audience eating right out of his hand. While that image may serve to describe the star power of Laurence Fishburne, it applies just as well to the late Thurgood Marshall, the subject of this one-man show penned by George Stevens Jr. The first black justice of the Supreme Court was the kind of character you can really take into your heart.
The educational tone comes naturally to this piece, which takes shape as a lecture the retired justice is delivering at Howard U. Leaning heavily on a cane and taking a slow, deliberate route around the long, solidly sculpted library table supplied by set designer Allen Moyer, the aged Marshall addresses the audience as presumptive students. And boy, do we have a lot to learn.
The known facts about this public figure are easily plucked from the text supplied by Stevens, who may be a first-time stage scribe, but comes by his solid skills via a long career in film. Those bio facts are effortlessly delivered by Fishburne — a theater animal (winning a Tony for “Two Trains Running”) before he became indispensable in Hollywood — who knows how to burnish a piece of exposition until it shines.
Thurgood Marshall, the facts tell us, was born in Baltimore in 1908; earned his law degree from Howard U.; served in Korea; made his legal reputation on key civil rights cases; was appointed to the Federal Court of Appeals by John F. Kennedy; became Solicitor General under Lyndon B. Johnson, who also advanced him to the Supreme Court; and as the first African-American justice, went on to serve on the court for almost half a century.
Even in summary, the biographical facts are impressive. But they are only the bare bones of the play, which was originally produced in 2006 at Westport Country Playhouse (starring James Earl Jones) and has legs to go where it will in the future. The heart of the play, rather, is the character who emerges from the historical shadows to give voice to his own remarkable life story.
And what a voice it is — wise and warming; chuckling with good sense and humor; proud and passionate at the right moments; resonant with pain when it matters; and honest as the day is long.
Fishburne is such an imposing stage presence (even hunched over a cane, he exudes strength) that it’s a bit of a shock to register the full range and texture of that narrative voice. Folksy like a fox, he adopts an avuncular tone that shouldn’t fool us chickens — but does, all the same — into following him wherever he leads this tale.
In a nice stroke of subtle showmanship, helmer Leonard Foglia (“Master Class”) does his subject the courtesy of reversing the aging process for him. Marshall does show his years when he begins his “lecture.” But if it’s an old man who looks back at the historic events of his life captured by Elaine McCarthy’s projections, it is a younger, more robust man who turns back to the audience to relive those moments.
Ever mindful that he is instructing a young generation in their own living history, Marshall chooses his moments shrewdly, from the early jobs that shaped his character to his leading role in the definitive court case of Brown v. the Board of Education that ended school segregation. He also pays homage to the people who made him what he is, including his father, his grandmother, his Uncle Fearless, and that heroic unknown Homer Plessy, who wouldn’t sit in the “colored” section of a railroad coach and dared to take his case to the Supreme Court in 1896.
That was the case, Marshall says, that taught him the law existed for everyone, or at least for everyone who learns how to use it. If the man wants to concentrate on passing on that lesson — instead of, say, going into the drinking and womanizing that dogged him throughout his life — well, this is an educational show, after all. He spares us the juicy gossip and leaves us with enormous respect for a man and his values.