Monday, July 19, 2010

Thurgood by George Stevens, Jr.

By Joe Straw

It was not until the fifth grade at Byrns L. Darden Elementary School in Clarksville, Tennessee that we had our first African American student.  Her name was Patranella Chambers and she was a sight to behold.  This event took place ten years after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling Brown vs. Board of Education. Like the Red and Cumberland Rivers that run through Clarksville, things moved slowly in the south.

“Sometimes I get a little weary trying to save the white mans world.”  - Thurgood

Thurgood written by George Stevens, Jr. and directed by Leonard Foglia starring Laurence Fishburne is playing at The Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through August 8th, 2010.

Laurence Fishburne has had a reputation of playing majestic larger than life heroes in the simplest of characters in film. He has a powerful and commanding presence and a truth that is so undeniable and unshakeable. His reputation fills theatre seats with audience members who are young, through those who are young at heart.  (An SRO this night is a testament to that fact.)

Fishburne has found the secret unknown to ten of thousands of actors struggling on the street today. (Or maybe he just learns his lines and shows up.) And yet time and time again he comes back to the stage to connect and to carry home the passion that burns in every actor’s heart.

Today he stands at the Geffen, alone in front of the hungry masses that yearn to see the life of Thurgood Marshall, Supreme Court Justice. 

Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court Justice, broke racial barriers using the law as his weapon of choice.  This life was given to him from the men who were instrumental in his life most notably his father, William Marshall.

It’s not a mistake the American flag on the wall is white at the Geffen.  The Scenic Design by Allen Moyer was simple in its purpose. The white flag serves two purposes. Number one, it’s a symbolic image which highlights Supreme Court’s ruling Plessy v. Ferguson - separate but equal - and the “Whites only” mentality that accompanied that ruling.  And the other (a more practical one) was to project images to tell the story of how things were before Thurgood was finished. 

Downstage is a long sturdy conference table one would find in a law office or when one is speaking before a judge.  This table represents the strength of the law, the solid foundation of our constitutional creationism. 

In the opening of the play Thurgood is an elderly man speaking to the students at Howard University but as the play progresses he gets younger as he speaks the narrative and then gradually grows older as the play ends.

Born July 2nd 1908 in Baltimore Maryland the year Jack Johnson was the undisputed heavy weight champion of the world.  Something Thurgood, a fighter, could admire about his birth year.  It was also the year in which there were 89 lynchings in the United States.

Lynching is defined as an extrajudicial punishment carried out by a mob, usually by hanging in order to intimidate, control or manipulate a population of people.

The theatrical experience that is Thurgood is in and of itself unique.  Stevens, Jr. has written a narrative and it is up the audience member to decide if it is a complete theatrical experience.  With the outcome of Brown v. Board of Education not in questions it’s a matter of discussion as to what we are actually witnessing: A historical narrative, or a play?  There are moments that could have taken us to that special place such as the death of Thurgood’s first wife “Buster” and later the birth of his son.  But these moments slip away without too much grief or fanfare and probably on purpose because Marshall himself had these priorities with the law first and everything else second. 

Leonard Foglia, the director, moves the action on stage smoothly enough and the characters of LBJ, and General Douglas MacArthur portrayed by Fishburne seem to elevate the production. But there is one story about Thurgood’s travel in Tennessee that could have changed the direction of this country with unforeseeable results.  It is a wonderful moment and wonderful story.  

Fishburne’s strength lies in his ability to connect to his audience.  This will be different every night depending on the make up of the audience. He finds those physical moments that highlights the lives of Lyndon Baines Johnson and General Douglas MacArthur. 

What was interesting about Fishburne’s performance was that he was listening.  Listening as Thurgood to the faint sounds of the law and fighting to bring those voices to the forefront to be heard.  In that regard, it is a performance not to be missed.

One notices a southern accent from Fishburne when Thurgood speaks. Slight oddity since Thurgood grew up in Maryland. A YouTube video has him speaking with a northern inflection. Fishburne was born in Augusta, Georgia and moved to New York after his parents divorced.  Osmosis may have been the root but one wonders if it was an actor’s choice or a director’s choice.

“I have a lifetime appointment and I intend to serve it.  I expect to die at 110, shot by a jealous husband.”  - Thurgood 

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