You could be forgiven for being a little wary of Thurgood, George Stevens Jr.’s one-man stage biography of Justice Thurgood Marshall, especially as performed by Laurence Fishburne. What are the odds a grade-school-to-grave account of the life of the first African-American to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, boasting a star of such Zenlike solemnity that you totally believed him about our all being pickled, hairless pod dwellers plugged unawares inside The Matrix, could be anything more than plodding hagiography? Great for high-school history and government classes, but nothing made with such worthy intentions could possibly be any fun. Right?
Sez you. Point one, Fishburne, reprising his role from a Broadway run two summers ago, is as impish and avuncular as he is authoritative. Whether lurching across the stage on a cane or channeling LBJ’s Lone Star imperiousness, he’s a captivating presence for every second of this 95-minute monologue. Point two, the story of Marshall’s life—one that Stevens seems to have taken a strict constructionist, if anecdotal, approach to interpreting—is simply a hell of a tale, so rich in incident and character and humor and triumph that it seems too good to be true.
Remember Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 high court ruling that, after more intrigue than you realize, outlawed segregation in the public schools? Marshall represented the plaintiff. But before that, he visited Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War to investigate reports MacArthur was defying President Truman’s order to integrate the Army.
And before that, Marshall successfully sued to have his mother, a Baltimore schoolteacher, paid the same wage as her white colleagues. He was a high-school pal of Langston Hughes. He first memorized the Constitution because his teacher would banish him to the furnace room with a copy of it whenever he misbehaved in class. His father would go to Baltimore city court to hear cases argued on his days off, sometimes dragging his son along so they could re-argue them at the dinner table.
Stevens’ play—his first, though his film and TV credits are legion—relates these episodes chronologically, in the form of an imaginary commencement address at Howard University, from which Marshall graduated in 1933. “I’ve given 50 years to the law, I’ve seen a lot, and I’ve gotten too old to keep secrets,” the justice says at the outset, which would place us somewhere in the Reagan era, when “a lot of people wanted me off the court: ‘too old, too liberal, too tipsy.’”
Just for fun, I called up Howard to ask if Marshall had ever delivered a commencement address there. Somewhat surprisingly, he had not. Maybe it’s because Howard was his second choice: The University of Maryland didn’t accept black students then.
Marshall would successfully challenge that policy on another man’s behalf a few years later, but being rebuffed proved to be a blessing in disguise. If he hadn’t ended up on the train to Union Station each morning to study law at Howard, he might never have come under the stern tutelage of Charlie Houston. Houston, a Phi Beta Kappa member, World War I veteran, and former Harvard Law Review editor, had become Howard’s law-school dean, pledging to transform “the dummy’s retreat” into “the West Point of Negro leadership.” Marshall was Houston’s star pupil, then his colleague in the NAACP, where the two men plotted to end segregation 20 years before the historic Brown decision.
As you’d expect, Marshall’s human vulnerabilities aren’t given a lot of time here, but they are acknowledged. Earning his tuition as a dining-club waiter, Marshall smilingly tolerated an unnamed U.S. senator’s habit of addressing him by the N-word because the distinguished gentleman always left a $20 tip on his way out. When Marshall’s father, the club steward, saw him rushing at the call of a man who spoke to him that way, he fired him.
“Now, between you and me, anytime you wanna call me nigger, you just lay your $20 on the table,” Fishburne shrugs, earning one of the biggest laughs of the evening. “But the second you run out of them 20s…” Elsewhere, there are allusions to womanizing, and Marshall acknowledges seeking solace in the bottle after losing his first wife to cancer when she was only 44. The play’s reticence on these subjects is appropriate to its form: Your commencement speaker probably didn’t spend a lot of time airing his dirty laundry, either.
Near the end, Fishburne pretends to take questions from his audience of phantom Howard grads. Pondering “Should a Negro replace me?” he answers, “I’d be opposed to [the president’s] picking the wrong Negro and saying, ‘I’m picking him because he’s a Negro.’”
Marshall’s replacement on the high court, Justice Clarence Thomas, goes unmentioned. That his seat could have been taken by an African-American holding views in such drastic opposition to Marshall’s is its own, possibly perverse tribute to the enduring impact of Marshall’s work. Fishburne, Stevens, and director Leonard Foglio have built a memorial worthy of the man, one so relentlessly entertaining its scholastic value registers only in hindsight. Did I say it was like high school? Maybe I meant college.