No one who saw the late Henry Fonda’s Clarence Darrow monodrama will ever forget it, and Laurence Fishburne’s “Thurgood” is similarly likely to linger with its audiences on Broadway, at the Kennedy Center and now at the Geffen. A thesp with overpowering personality and charisma can easily render a text’s flatness irrelevant, and George Stevens Jr.’s portrait of the first African-American Supreme Court justice is no meatier than David Rintels’ Darrow was. All the same, you can’t take your eyes off Thurgood Marshall — that is, Fishburne; the two men merge.
Magically transforming from ailing oldster to energetic young civil rights attorney — with a return to senescence for the finale — Fishburne sells sly, folksy anecdotes about charting a tenuous path through the daunting Jim Crow South, with keen impressions of his heroes (his law school dean, LBJ) and foes (Douglas MacArthur, and opposing counsel in the Brown v. Board of Education case with which Marshall will forever be associated).
Yet he can turn on a dime to righteous fury when summoning up the innocent victims of racism and prejudice. This Marshall forgives but never forgets, demonstrating his lifelong determination to root out injustice in all its forms.
That’s fine as far as it goes, but despite helmer Leonard Foglia’s best efforts, further impact is blunted by Stevens’ limp framing device: Marshall has ostensibly been invited to address alma mater Howard Law.
But why? If he felt current students needed a renewed sense of mission or a call to arms against conservative backlash (hugely timely themes), or if he was simply out to defend his legacy, then there’d be a rationale investing his narrative with the ruthless purpose characteristic of a great debater (which Marshall was).
But with no real point beyond sheer information, his reminiscences — even when evoking the most terrifying perils or historic triumphs — carry no more urgency than a grandpa rocking on the front porch.
Still, any available municipal arts funding (as if!) would be well spent on bringing schoolchildren of every age and race over to the Geffen. They might come expecting to see “The Matrix’s” Morpheus, but they’ll stay to be riveted by unfamiliar but essential true stories speaking to the heart of that eternal dream: an America where all are treated as equal as they are created.