*Theater review: 'Thurgood' at Geffen Playhouse (updated)
In a recent poll testing the knowledge of basic American history, more than a quarter of those surveyed didn’t know that the U.S. gained its independence from Great Britain. OK, here’s a chance at redemption: How many of you can say something substantive about Thurgood Marshall without a Google search?
For those of you drawing a blank, your ignorance is readily correctable. And thanks to the Geffen Playhouse, where the stirring one-man theatrical history lesson “Thurgood” opened Wednesday, the educational process doesn’t involve a dry textbook or a stultifying social studies teacher. In fact, if the curriculum in the schools were presented with half as much personality, the gaps in our knowledge wouldn't be so pronounced.
Reprising the role that earned him a Tony nomination for his performance in the play’s 2008 Broadway run, Laurence Fishburne infuses his portrayal of the first African American Supreme Court justice with dramatic flair and moral fervor. He salutes the man (winking affectionately at his appreciation of a stiff drink and fine looking women) and pays homage to the civil rights legend, allowing us to see how the injustice of growing up in the “separate but equal” Jim Crow South prompted Marshall to become a champion for justice.
Dressed in a comfortably fitting blue suit and taking on and off Marshall's signature dark glasses, Fishburne — a Tony winner for his performance in August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” and a movie and television star known to a generation through his work in the “Matrix” franchise — possesses a big build and an even bigger theatrical presence. His virtuoso stage command is riveting even when the documentary play by George Stevens Jr. momentarily stalls in the final stretch of what is otherwise an assured chronological stroll.
The occasion for Marshall’s direct-address recap of the path he carved is a talk at Howard University, where he graduated from law school. Fishburne begins with a cane, but as he travels back in time, the years sprinkle off and the fiery passion of a young man determined to make good on his name — a shortened version of Thoroughgood — is reignited.
“We might as well get right down to it,” Marshall says without preamble. “I’ve given fifty years to the law. I’ve seen a lot and I’ve gotten too old to keep secrets. Here at Howard we were taught one simple idea — the law is a weapon if you know how to use it.”
The framing device of a public speech is just that — a pretext to relate Marshall’s tale. This address contains enough private musings to lend the feeling of a barroom conversation with a silent and sympathetic interviewer.
Smoothly directed by Leonard Foglia, the unobtrusive production unfolds against a stately background designed by Allen Moyer that’s dominated by a wooden table and a discreetly employed video screen for Elaine J. McCarthy projections. The staging encourages a direct connection between actor and audience, and in this regard the Geffen’s Gil Cates Theater is ideal, cozier than the Booth Theatre in New York where I first saw the play and less than half the size of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts' Eisenhower Theatre, where this Geffen production was presented in June.
Stevens, a writer, director and producer for television and film, wrote and directed the miniseries “Separate But Equal,” the story of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation case, which Marshall argued before the Supreme Court as a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. This is the rousing focal point of “Thurgood,” the climax of a series of decisions that Marshall fought for in his quest to upend the legal rationale for segregation.
The saga loses a bit of steam after this victory, even as Marshall’s career is put on the fast-track to judicial superstardom. Perhaps the problem is a diminishment of conflict. His was primarily the legal battle over segregation, not the battle of enforcement of the Supreme Court’s ruling. And his subsequent professional life is a portrait of honor, even if an occasionally salty one as age and admiration entice him to drop his guard.
This isn’t hagiography exactly, yet none of the characters that appear in this celebratory retelling of his story challenge him much. Marshall’s first and second wives lend him support and stability; Charles Hamilton Houston, his rigorous mentor at Howard, sets an example of committed excellence; Gen. Douglas MacArthur bears the brunt of his puncturing wit during a military case involving black servicemen in Korea; and President Lyndon B. Johnson uses his gruff Southern charm to catapult him to the position of solicitor general before nominating him to the Supreme Court.
The play is indeed dominated by its subject — a courageously brilliant legal advocate and a likable if flawed human being. Short on psychology, the work is nonetheless deeply personal. And anyone who insists that a good judge is one who completely divorces subjective experience from abstract analysis should be required to see “Thurgood,” as it's clearly not possible to partition Marshall's biography from his understanding of justice as an inclusive and unceasing struggle for equality.
At the end, Marshall recites the following lines from a poem by his Lincoln University schoolmate Langston Hughes: “O, let America be America again./The Land that never has been yet — /And yet must be….” Fishburne allows the words to resonate with purpose, clarity and democratic feeling, and his performance is an opportunity for all of us, young and old, historically informed and less so, to be inspired as citizens.
[An earlier version of this review incorrectly referred to Langston Hughes as a Howard University schoolmate of Thurgood Marshall.]
-- Charles McNulty
"Thurgood," Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 8. $65 to $85. (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
Photos: Top and bottom: Laurence Fishburne in "Thurgood." Credit: Jacquelyn Martin / APSidney Poitier and Laurence Fishburne at the after party Casting set for Lynn Nottage's 'Ruined' at Geffen Playhouse