A History Lesson: The play about Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall hits the mark
The late Thurgood Marshall was a fearless civil-rights champion and a dynamic trial lawyer; he wrote more than 150 decisions as a judge for the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, and as a lawyer he won 29 of the 32 cases he brought before the Supreme Court, the most noted being the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, which ended legal segregation in public schools. Marshall was also an engaging storyteller.
In the one-man show Thurgood, award-winning actor Laurence Fishburne delivers a remarkable performance, chronicling Marshall’s life from his childhood in Baltimore to his becoming the first African-American appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court to his last day on the court. “I felt it was a responsibility to play him,” says Fishburne. “His life and his journey were interesting, and his story is one that deserves to be told. The important work he accomplished in his lifetime is something that we all have benefited from.”
As the candid and eidetic Marshall, who has returned to his alma mater, Fishburne begins by declaring, “I’ve given fifty years to the law. The law is a weapon if you know how to use it.” He then recounts his days of growing up in Baltimore — where he began to learn The Constitution in grade school, as a result of being sent to the furnace room to read it as a form of punishment — attending Lincoln College, being denied admission to the University of Maryland Law School and going to Howard University, where he was schoolmates with Langston Hughes and met his mentor Charles Hamilton Houston. He then tells of his time as a lawyer for the NAACP. He also recounts the tender and sad moments of his personal life.
Fishburne has often portrayed authoritative and commanding characters, but he says that those are never characteristics he looks for when he decides to take on a role. With regards to preparing for his role as Thurgood Marshall, he says, “I prepared the usual way, rehearsing week after week, six days a week. Rehearsal is preparation. But I also read a lot of books about Thurgood, most notably Juan Williams’s biography.”
In addition to his conviction of the need for integration and his brilliance with regards to law, Marshall was also known for possessing quite a sense of humor. Fishburne captures that quality in his portrayal, imparting Marshall’s sharp wit in the stories he retells. But at the heart of those stories — and the play itself — he delivers a vital history lesson about the discrimination Blacks faced in their struggles for equal civil rights as well as fair treatment on their jobs and in their quest for equal education opportunities and voting rights.
Laurence Fishburne is probably best known for his riveting film roles. He was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of musician Ike Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It. He has also given several powerful Broadway performances, such as his role of ex-con Sterling Johnson in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, for which he won a Tony Award, a Drama Desk Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award and a Theatre World Award. “I don’t have a preference when it comes to doing films or performing on stage,” Fishburne says. “I liken it to a painter who works in different mediums. I’ve been fortunate enough to work across all mediums — movies, stage and television — and I get great satisfaction from them all.” Fishburne says he doesn’t have a favorite among the variety of impressive roles he’s had. “I just try to enjoy the one I’m doing at the moment.”
Thurgood opens on April 30 and runs until July 20 at the Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, New York, NY 10036. Call Telecharge for tickets, 212-239-6200.