Friday, May 16, 2008
Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****
This week's decision by the California Supreme Court to overturn a ban on gay marriage is the latest in a long line of battles to expand civil rights in America that have been waged - and won - in America's courtrooms. All of those struggles can be traced back to the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education that outlawed school segregation. In a unanimous decision, the justices said that separate can never truly be equal.
In the 1950s, before he became the nation's first African-American Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall, of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, was known as the lawyer for Linda Brown. She was the young black girl in Topeka, Kan., whose family wanted her to attend school closest to where she lived, a school that was designated for white children only.
Marshall's story, and the story of the fight to end legalized segregation in the United States, are brought to life by Laurence Fishburne's wonderful, totally absorbing performance in Thurgood, a one-man show playing through July 20 at Broadway's Booth Theatre.
When I was a young, I remember watching on television one-man shows with Henry Fonda as Clarence Darrow and James Whitmore as Harry Truman. Through their mannerisms and manner of speaking they became those men. I'm sure that a one-person show has got to be one of the most difficult roles for an actor. You're out there in front of an audience all alone, walking on a tightrope, without a net. Yet they pulled it off. And Fishburne is absolutely their equal. Quite simply, his performance blew me away. I totally suspended disbelief and felt like I was watching Thurgood Marshall tell me the story of his life. I just hope someone tapes this for posterity.
This was my first time seeing a one-person show live. Before I went, I was a little afraid that it might be a slightly dry recitation of the facts, something that was more good for me than entertaining. But Thurgood is immensely entertaining. And Fisburne is mesmerizing as he takes us on a journey through Marshall's life. While George Stevens Jr.'s 90-minute play takes the form of a lecture Marshall is giving at his alma mater, Howard University Law School, I never felt like I was being lectured at, but rather regaled by a masterful storyteller.
The set, by Allen Moyer, is simple but works fine - a long oak table, a lectern and couple of chairs. Elaine McCarthy's projections on a stucco-colored flag on the back wall - the Supreme Court building, a sharecropper's shack, a sign pointing to the balcony of a movie theater where black patrons were forced to sit - give us a feel for the time and place where these events in Marshall's life are occurring.
And under Leonard Foglia's direction, Fishburne, almost always in motion, is a commanding presence on stage. I was in the third row, on the aisle, so when he sat down, he was literally right in front of me. There was one point when I wanted to sneak a glance at the other side of the stage, but I didn't dare take my eyes off of him - he was looking right at me, or at least that's what it felt like.
Fishburne makes Marshall a very compelling character, but also folksy and very human - blunt at times, funny and self-deprecating, honest when talking about his shortcomings. Marshall comes across as a towering figure, totally determined to fight the evil of segregation, someone who was fierce in his beliefs, never wavering from his convictions on issues that were important to him, such as his opposition to the death penalty. And as a bonus, Fishburne does a terrific impression of Lyndon Johnson.
I knew the outline of the story from Simple Justice, Richard Kluger's excellent, detailed history of the Brown case. But Fishburne really brings those facts to life as he weaving together all of the different strands of Marshall's life - growing up in Baltimore, his decision to become a lawyer, the triumph of the Brown decision, the pain of losing his first wife to cancer. And his passionate delivery makes the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, with its equal-protection clause, sound practically like poetry. There's also one very funny anecdote about a white lawyer who joins the NAACP legal team that I remembered from the book, but hearing Fishburne as Marshall recount it truly brought home the difference between reading a story and hearing it.
When we think about the fight for civil rights, the first things that come to mind are Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus, peaceful protesters being attacked by police dogs and fire hoses. Those are all important things to remember. But that's only part of the story. What Fishburne reminds us of so forcefully in Thurgood is the equally important other part: the hours spent putting together cases, researching and writing legal briefs, arguing before judges who weren't always kindly predisposed to African-American lawyers.
It's a simple idea really: equal justice under law. Those words, engraved on the front of the Supreme Court, include far more Americans today than they did a half century ago. While we have a ways to go to truly include everyone under the banner of equal justice, we've certainly come a very long way. And for that, as Laurence Fishburne demonstrates so compellingly, we have Americans like Thurgood Marshall to thank.
Postscript: I've gotten a few queries asking whether Laurence Fishburne comes to the stage door after the show to sign autographs. At the Sunday matinee I saw, he did not come out. But there was someone at the door who would take your Playbill inside and get it autographed.