Olney Theatre Center looks at a crucial piece of Supreme Court history.
In 2008, George Stevens Jr. wrote Thurgood, a solo play about the first African-American Supreme Court judge, Thurgood Marshall. Now Olney Theatre Center is presenting this play about one of the most important Supreme Court judges of recent decades, a man who — among many other important cases — argued and won the 1954 trial that ended school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education.
Right from the start, Brian Anthony Wilson's Marshall proves himself to be an affable, intelligent person, narrating memories of his early life in west Baltimore, introducing members of his family, and explaining how he shortened his own name in second grade, since his real name — Thoroughgood — was just too long to spell. He tells stories of his great-grandfather, who had been a slave; his father, who worked as a railroad porter; and his mother, a teacher. Most of all, he makes it clear that his parents had high expectations for their son and worked hard to make sure that he would go to college.
After graduating from Lincoln University, Marshall went to Howard Law School and, after graduating, began a private law practice. In 1934, he began to work for the Baltimore branch of the NAACP and, two years later, won his first major civil rights case, forcing the University of Maryland to accept a black student.
A great number of the stories Marshall tells are related to his personal life. In 1939, for instance, Marshall took on and won the Alston case, securing equal pay for black and white schoolteachers. He considered that one a private victory, as his mother had been paid 40 percent less than white teachers in her position. He relates a story about his first wife, Buster, who died of cancer, and of his second wife and two sons, of whom he was extremely proud.
It was Marshall's high success rate in arguing before the Supreme Court that allowed him to be noticed and appointed to various high judicial positions. First, President John F. Kennedy appointed him to the United States Court of Appeals. Then, President Lyndon Johnson appointed him Solicitor General in 1965 and nominated him to the United States Supreme Court in 1967.
Thurgood is structured so that the events in Marshall's life are narrated in an orderly, linear manner, but Stevens cleverly uses quotes from Marshall that reveal his piquant sense of humor, so that the play never feels like a dry documentary. Most memorable of those moments is an incident Stevens includes while Marshall was arguing a case of antiblack discrimination in Korea. Up against none other than Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who denied that he approved of segregation, Marshall pointed to a photo of the regiment's all-white brass band and coyly observed, "Don't tell me you can't find a Negro who can blow a horn."
Brian Anthony Wilson is excellent as Marshall, a role that calls for him to display a range of emotions over the course of the production, all of which Wilson displays fully. Director Walter Dallas keeps the action moving quickly as Wilson prowls the small stage in the Olney Theatre Center's experimental space. Paige Hathaway's set is a simple wooden table and lectern surrounded by four chairs. Two flags — of the United States and of the District of Columbia — stand before the black curtain that covers the rear of the set. Costume designer Seth Gilbert creates a dark three-piece suit for Marshall and dresses him in a Supreme Court justice's robe near the end of the show. Zachary G. Borovay projects memorable images from the past to set the stage for Marshall's memories. One of the most haunting images for Marshall is a photo of a police station he remembers from his youth, where he had seen policemen beating African-American prisoners. Another projection shows African-American voters lining up to vote, representing Marshall's winning of a case that put an end to white-only primaries in many Southern states.
Clocking in at a brisk 90 minutes with intermission, the worst one could say about the consistently engaging Marshall is that one wishes Wilson was on stage longer to tell more of the historically explosive legal victories that are the legacies of Thurgood Marshall's life.