This is a one-man show, written and produced by George Stevens Jr., that has been performed by James Earl Jones before. But this more recent versions stars Laurence Fishburne as the Late Thurgood Marshall, the legendary lawyer who successfully argued the landmark Brown Vs. The Board of Education case, which ended legalized segregation in public schools in America, and eventually became the first Black Judge appointed to the United States Supreme Court.
I’ll admit that I, and I’m sure most Americans, even Black Americans, didn’t know much about Thurgood Marshall beyond those two things. Considering his important role in the American history regarding the Civil Rights Movement, that is surprising. But I think we, rightly or wrongly, tend to more easily remember those who fought outside the system. Hence why figures like Dr. King, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks get more attention than a lawyer like Thurgood Marshall, or a politician like Adam Clayton Powell Jr. So I’d definitely recommend this play to anyone who is interested in Black history.
So Fishburne plays Thurgood, and the play is sort of divided into three parts, detailing three periods in Thurgood’s life. It starts with his childhood, growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, which he says was just as racist back then as it was “down south.” Despite being light-skinned enough to pass for White, his parents were fiercely pro-Black (or Colored, as they said back then), and instilled this sense of pride in young Thurgood, teaching him never to back down from racists. There’s a scene later in the play where Thurgood’s father gets him a job as a waiter, and when he sees Thurgood smiling at and happily serving an old White man who keeps calling him Nigger, just because that man would always leave a big $20 tip, his father fired Thurgood and called him “a disgrace to Colored people.” It was both funny and poignant. Thurgood wasn’t a very good student, but eventually made it to college where he initially intended to study to become a dentist, but then changed his mind and decided to become a lawyer. It was there where he met his first wife, whom he affectionately called “Buster” (because she was a very “busty” woman). The Maryland Law School was segregated, so he had to go to Howard Law School, where law professor Charlie Houston became a huge influence on him. And after graduating he joined Charlie in private practice.
The 2nd part deals with Thurgood’s activities as a civil rights lawyer, first working with Charlie Houston and then later for the NAACP. Fighting various segregation cases, leading up to Brown Vs. Board of Education. He also tells of a harrowing experience in a small Southern town when he is almost lynched. But his success in the courts is marred by tragedy at home, as he and Buster suffer through three miscarriages before she succumbs to cancer.
The final chapter of the Play revolves around Thurgood’s career as a judge. By now he remarried, to a young Filipina woman named Cecilia whom he called Cissy. President Kennedy appoints Thurgood to 9th Circuit Court, the 2nd-highest federal court in the nation. This is followed by President Johnson appointing him his Solicitor General and then finally to the Supreme Court. We get some insight into his political philosophy and how that shaped his judicial decisions, and it ends with his eventual retirement.
I’ve just gone over the broad strokes here, but keep in mind, this isn’t Fishburne just standing on the stage talking about, he’s acting it out, all by himself. And he does it so well. Whenever he speaks the dialog of another character, be it the racist police officer who arrests him, one of his wives, or Lyndon Johnson, he changes his voice to sound different, and it’s so subtle you almost think you really are hearing someone else talk. This includes Thurgood Marshall’s voice near the end, when he’s old man, Fishburne not only adopts his voice but also his mannerisms, seeming to age 40 years right before our eyes. It’s spellbinding. This play is a little over an hour and half, but it zips right by, keeping you entertained from start to finish. I can’t recommend this Play high enough.