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Thurgood

Laurence Fishburne gives a Tony-worthy performance as the late Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall in George Stevens Jr.'s rewarding if inelegant solo drama.

By New York City
Laurence Fishburne in Thurgood
(© Carol Rosegg)
Laurence Fishburne in Thurgood
(© Carol Rosegg)
There are two very different lessons being imparted by Thurgood, the ultimately rewarding solo drama now at the Booth Theatre. The first, courtesy of George Stevens Jr.'s somewhat inelegant 90-minute script, is the overwhelming historical importance of Thurgood Marshall, the Baltimore-bred lawyer who, in 1954, argued (and won) one of the most landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases in history, "Brown v. Board of Education," which ended segregation in public schools -- and who, just 13 years later, became the first African-American appointed to the Supreme Court.

The second lesson is delivered by Laurence Fishburne, who instantly commands the stage with consummate ease, wringing enormous humor, pathos, and, above all, inspiration from his subject's life and Stevens' words. Indeed, there's little doubt that Fishburne, who has been absent from Broadway for nearly a decade, has lost none of his stage chops. In fact, he is now a serious contender to earn his second Tony Award.

It would be particularly wonderful to report that both lessons are without imperfection. but that's simply not the case. Other than flubbing an occasional line, Fishburne's main flaw is that, despite some artful graying of his hair, he's never convincingly close to 83 years old, the age at which Stevens has Marshall deliver a fictional lecture at Howard University, his law school alma mater, just a few years before his death. (This particular feat was probably considerably easier for James Earl Jones, who originated the role at the Westport Country Playhouse and was originally set to bring it to the Great White Way.)

Fortunately, since much of the show's proceedings actually take place during Marshall's younger days -- he won the Brown decision when he was just 46 years old -- Fishburne's vigor only seems somewhat jarring at the very beginning and end of the play. Blame for this small imperfection can be laid at the feet of director Leonard Foglia, whose staging could be a tad less static as well. As Fishburne prowls the stage, an occasionally vivid projection by Elaine McCarthy pops up on the stone-like American flag (designed by Allen Moyer) that dominates the back wall, and Ryan Rumery contributes an evocative sound effect or two, but it's not the most visually stimulating experience.

Stevens, a veteran screenwriter and neophyte playwright, has also made some unfortunate if well-intentioned choices that rob the work of its full dramatic effectiveness. Thurgood should rightly end with either the Brown decision or Marshall's appointment by LBJ to the Supreme Court in 1967, rather than an unnecessary coda in which Marshall briefly recounts his stance on some of the court's major issues. (And the fact that he doesn't discuss "Roe v. Wade," the Court's most important if controversial decision, seems particularly odd.)

Moreover, the entire piece would be more satisfying if Stevens had provided both a bit more depth about Marshall's early struggles to even become a lawyer and a little less superficiality about his personal life. A few references to his fondness for women (despite two seemingly happy marriages) and booze, and his frequent absences from home in support of his causes, is all that gives Marshall even a toe of clay, as if Stevens was afraid that the revelation of any personal failings might force us to lessen our opinion of the man's greatness.

Regardless, Thurgood's primary message of the fight for equal rights -- which continues to this day -- needs to be heard loudly and clearly. And Broadway is very fortunate that Fishburne is the one spreading the word.


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