It’s ironic that I saw Thurgood — starring Laurence Fishburne as the civil rights titan and first Black Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall — in an L.A. theater on July 8. Not only because the next day Predators , the action pic co-starring Fishburne opened, but because that Thursday night a jury in an L.A. courthouse found Oakland police officer Johannes Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter (instead of second degree murder) for shooting to death an unarmed Black youth, Oscar Grant. This was precisely the type of case that motivated Marshall to defend the defenseless, in particular Blacks victimized by lynching and the state’s law enforcement apparatus (sometimes, alas, one and the same thing). There were 89 lynchings in 1908, the year Marshall was born.
Written by George Stevens, Jr., Thurgood is a perfect specimen of the one-man show format, with all the right ingredients. First of all, there’s a great story to be told, and Stevens’ script does so in a manner worthy of its subject matter, including: Marshall’s lifelong campaign for equal rights; dramatic courtroom clashes culminating with his triumph in 1954’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation case; and Marshall’s ultimate appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. A gallery of historic characters figure in this tantalizing tale: Poet Langston Hughes, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Chief Justice Earl Warren, Martin Luther King, JFK, LBJ, etc. The story is also enacted by a first-rate actor, who convincingly ages onstage as he brings the legendary legal eagle to life and we follow Marshall from his youth in Baltimore to his senior citizenship on and off the bench. Fishburne, who starred in 1995’s Othello and the Matrix movies, has come a long way since he machine-gunned Vietnamese as a callow stoned youth in 1979’s Apocalypse Now .
The play’s backdrop is a huge American flag, reminiscent of Jasper Johns’ version, except this Old Glory is all white, allowing various images to be cinematically projected upon it, such as of the Supreme Court in Washington. In addition to Elaine McCarthy’s projection design, Ryan Rumery’s sound design adds to the drama’s overall effect, with various sound effects and recordings. Brian Nason’s lighting is also evocative of the piece’s myriad moods that move from jubilation to fear in this production deftly directed by Leonard Foglia.
Fishburne was Tony-nominated for his depiction of Marshall, an irascible courtroom gladiator and crusader with personal quirks – there are hints of a fondness for liquor and out-of-wedlock peccadilloes. His family had a predilection for unusual names (including an uncle named “Fearless”) and, as Thurgood (short for “Thoroughgood”) admits, for “stubbornness” – a trait, by and by, that stood him and the cause of social justice in good stead over time. All in all, the mythic Marshall who did so much to overturn Jim Crow was all too human – in all senses of the term.
The play’s incisive and insightful script delves into Marshall’s legal philosophy: That “the law is a weapon” and the U.S. Constitution, with its promise of “equal justice under law,” should be used to smash American apartheid. As such Marshall disapproved of the now sanctified Dr. King, whom, we should remember, was an outlaw advocating breaking unjust laws. When Rev. King champions Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, Marshall wryly reminds his friend that Thoreau wrote this essay while he was in a prison cell (one of this drama’s many humorous moments). If Marshall’s battlefield was the courthouse, King’s was the streets; to each their venue.
The playwright and his actor successfully dramatize history, making it highly entertaining. For instance, the audience is reminded about the struggles of the NAACP (Marshall long served this venerable civil rights organization as an attorney for years), and of the irony that Earl Warren – who, as California’s attorney general during WWII, played a despicable role in the internment of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry – eventually played such a major role in desegregating America as Chief Justice of the liberal so-called “Warren Court” that ruled unanimously against segregation in the Brown v. Board case. (Perhaps Warren was trying to atone for his internment sins?) And so on.
My one quibble with the play is that it does not mention that Thurgood’s second wife, Cecilia, was born in Maui and the daughter of Filipino parents. Perhaps it was considered to be politically incorrect to point out that Thurgood’s wife was not Black? But Marshall was, after all, a fighter for integration, and his marrying a woman from Hawaii would be in character. I would have liked to learn more about “Sissy,” who is still alive, but this is a minor point about a major drama that was on Broadway a year ago.
Thurgood is Stevens’ first play. The child of the great filmmaker George Stevens (director of the 1950s classics A Place in the Sun , Shane, Giant and The Diary of Anne Frank ), like father like son, Junior has also directed, written and produced movies, including the 1991 made-for-TV movie Separate But Equal about the Brown vs. Board case, starring Burt Lancaster and Sidney Poitier as Marshall and 1998’s The Thin Red Line , which Stevens executive produced. It was at a private screening of the latter in a Westwood theater that I ran off at the mouth, saying the most tactless thing I ever said in my life.
I had been flown from Hawaii and put up at Beverly Hills’ Four Seasons as part of the press junket to cover The Thin Red Line for the Honolulu Weekly. While I was in the bathroom of the aforementioned Westwood movie theater I turned and saw none other than George Stevens, Jr., the film’s producer, at the next urinal. I had recently seen the superb documentary he’d made in homage to his dad, subtitled A Filmmaker’s Journey, and had been very moved by this son’s homage to his filmic father. Without thinking, I blurted out: “You know, at the end of your doc, when you show little Brandon De Wilde running after Alan Ladd as he rides away in Shane, pleading for him to come back? That’s really you, crying out for your father to come back from the dead.”
Stevens was flustered as he flushed. I was mortified when I realized what my loose lips had let rip. My only defense was that I was completely shocked at unexpectedly seeing Stevens there in the men’s room. But not even Thurgood Marshall could successfully defend me from being found guilty of total tactlessness in this case.
Be that as it may, towards the end of Thurgood Fishburne as the legal giant ruminates on issues such as capital punishment and gun control. (One wonders how Thurgood would rule on matters such as same sex marriage and other equal rights for gays issues?) We also get a sense of how Marshall felt about being replaced by the controversial Clarence Thomas, whom President George Bush Sr. appointed when Thurgood retired from the Supreme Court. (Somewhat like having a mosquito trading places with a magnificent stallion.) The play omits Marshall’s witty explanation for why the 80-something justice stepped down from the high court: “I’m old, and falling apart!” but ends with Marshall quoting his old classmate Langston Hughes’ poem about an America of equal justice that hasn’t yet been but will someday come to be.
In that America to be, which Hughes and Marhsall prophesy, there will no longer be any Oscar Grants shot in the back by police who receive slaps on the wrists for taking the lives of unarmed Black men.
Thurgood is being performed through August 8 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood Village, CA 90024. For tickets: (310)208-5454; for more info: www.GeffenPlayhouse.com.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian, critic, author, freelance writer and wag who wrote the Oct. 26, 2001 Tucson Weekly cover story“Tinseltown’s Tombstone, A Look at the Real and Reel Wyatt Earp.”