Civil Rights, Racism, SCOTUS, Supreme Court, Theater

ATL Theater Review: Thurgood

Laurence Fishburne Thurgood Marshall Broadway Booth theatre theater.jpgIf you’re in New York today (Sunday) and looking for something to do in the afternoon, consider checking out Thurgood. It’s a one-man show about the life of Justice Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993), starring Laurence Fishburne (best known as Morpheus of The Matrix, but with a long list of other film and theater credits).
It’s an entertaining and educational production, and Laurence Fishburne turns in a superb performance. As one friend of ours, an ex-theater major, put it, “Fishburne was able to make the audience forget that this is a one-man show.”
As one might expect from a play based on the life of a heroic historical figure, Thurgood occasionally verges on the pedantic and preachy (“one person can make a difference”; “we know how far we’ve come — but we also know how far we still have to go”). Law nerds might find feel patronized by the more expository parts of the play, like the mini-reviews of Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education. You can often sense the “message” button being pushed.
But hey, everyone needs a refresher course every now and then. And there are enough interesting bits of biographical trivia — as well as ample entertainment, in the form of humorous anecdotes from Marshall’s life, well-told by Fishburne — to make you forgive the more didactic or heavy-handed elements.
If you’d like to see Thurgood, you need to act fast; it’s closing today. The 3 p.m. matinee is the final performance. You can probably get discounted tickets at the TKTS booth (since Thurgood was there last week, and there were definitely a few empty seats at the performance we attended yesterday).
Additional thoughts — if you’re planning on seeing the play, save these for later, so you can form your own opinions free of taint — after the jump.

Thurgood Marshall Laurence Fishburne.jpgThe play proceeds in roughly chronological fashion. It starts with Marshall’s childhood in Baltimore, covers his education (Lincoln University, Howard Law School), and then hits its stride in recounting his career as a civil rights litigator for the NAACP. The play focuses on his career as a litigator (and properly so); his years as a Second Circuit judge, Solicitor General, and Supreme Court justice receive relatively limited coverage.
The framing device for the play is a lecture at Howard Law School, in which an aged Marshall looks back on his life and legal career before an audience of law students, essentially played by the audience. The story proceeds largely in flashbacks, with both general exposition and specific anecdote. (A quibble: some of the transitions between exposition and storytelling could be smoother.)
Fishburne, as noted, is excellent. His performance is naturalistic — he disappears into the role, morphing away from Morpheus — and compelling. He’s especially adept at capturing Marshall’s talent as a raconteur, folksy and funny. He has excellent stage presence and the ability to connect with a live audience, unlike many Hollywood types who head to Broadway. (But recall that Fishburne has significant theatrical experience; in 1992, he won a Tony Award for his performance in the August Wilson play, Two Trains Running.)
In terms of production values, Thurgood is “no frills,” as noted in Charles Isherwood’s review for the New York Times, but it’s effective. The barebones staging lets the story speak for itself, free of the distraction of Broadway bells and whistles. (One nice touch: dramatizing a SCOTUS argument by having the justices represented by nine squares of light on the stage, with the square representing the questioner illuminated more intensely.)
In sum, Thurgood is definitely worth seeing. If you’re free this afternoon and in New York, check it out. But if you miss it, no worries; according to NPR, the producers plan to take the show to other cities. So there will be other chances to see the show (although perhaps not with Fishburne in the starring role).
Trials and Triumphs on the Road to Justice [New York Times]
Next on His Docket: A Supreme Challenge [New York Times]
On Broadway, Laurence Fishburne, Yale Profs Discuss Marshall Legacy [WSJ Law Blog]
‘Thurgood’ Plays To Standing Ovations On Broadway [NPR]

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