Laurence Fishburne as Thurgood Marshall in “Thurgood” at the Geffen Playhouse
Photo by Carol Rosegg
By George Stevens Jr.
With Laurence Fishburne
Directed by Leonard Foglia
The Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles
Through August 8, 2010
(See video interview with Fishburne and excerpts from “Thurgood” below.)
Suspension of disbelief? No problem with Laurence Fishburne in “Thurgood” at the Geffen Playhouse. As a matter of fact, it is just the opposite. Fishburne so inhabits the role of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall that it is hard to accept that he is just an actor playing a role.
The 95 minutes — no intermission — fly by as the audience assumes the role of Howard University students hearing a talk by Marshall about how he got to be who he became. From the opening line, “I’ve gotten too old to keep secrets,” Fishburne is mesmerizing. Marshall’s story is the story of the civil-rights movements fought from the legal trenches and lived by a brilliant, educated, humanly flawed man who faced “colored only” signs in his own life. In 1963 those signs still existed in Virginia, not an hour’s drive from the District of Colombia. It was a shock to me, a California girl.
Fishburne’s Marshall promised no secrets, so this was not a dry recitation. From his explanation that he was originally named for his great-grandfather “Thoroughgood” but changed it himself to Thurgood in the second grade, to a liberal sprinkling of asides about drinking, appreciation of attractive women, and jokes related to the real-life issues he wrestled with, Marshall is presented as a living, breathing man. The kind of person you wish you could have known yourself. Fishburne’s eyes sparkle and flame in reflection of the content. So entertaining is the presentation, that it is hard to believe that PBS or HBO would not be interested in picking it up as a special. “Thurgood” would be an invaluable educational tool. This is history made alive, palatable, and memorable, rather than dry and forgettable as is so often the case. Playwright George Stevens, Jr. has done a masterful job of combining the facts of the life and times with the essence of the man. Set Designer Allen Mayer and Projection Designer Elaine J. McCarthy have created a production design that is flexible and spare but effectively enhances content.
From Marshall’s father, who once gave him a copy of the constitution but told him that if “anyone ever calls you a nigger” use your fists, to Howard Law School Dean, Charles Hamilton Houston, who exhorted the students to fight with the law, the message was to do something about discrimination. Both were serious taskmasters and their underlying message was shape up or ship out. Their idea of shape up did not mean be an Uncle Tom and take whatever insults come your way. It meant fight effectively, do very well, and earn respect. From President Obama to Louis Farrakhan, black leaders have echoed this call.
Houston, who was Director of Litigation for the NAACP, asked the young lawyer to join him in New York. His mentor provided Marshall with a healthy outlet for his justifiably building anger. Most famous for his victory in Brown v. Board of Education, Marshall argued, and won, many other cases before the court he was later to sit on. Before becoming a justice he had chipped away at Plessy v. Ferguson, which had famously set forth the doctrine of “separate but equal” that had been used to justify myriad acts of segregation.
Seeing “Thurgood” at this time is especially meaningful. Incredibly, Thurgood Marshall’s name has been hurled as an invective against Elena Kagan. The originalists cry “liberal … activist” as though the court should only interpret the laws through the eyes of frock-coated men arriving at the constitutional convention on horseback. Marshall’s own words in honor of the 1987 Constitution Bicentennial celebration sum it up well: “The government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and major social transformations to attain the system of constitutional government and its respect for the freedoms and individual rights we hold as fundamental today.” In 1787, neither Kagan, a woman, nor Marshall, a black man, could have voted, let alone sat on the U.S. Supreme Court.
See “Thurgood.” If you are a contemporary history buff, you will love it and find stories you had not heard. If you have no particular interest in history you might just be surprised by how riveting and entertaining it can be. Thurgood Marshall was a colorful character and Laurence Fishburne is a fascinating storyteller who does Marshall justice.