In life, Thurgood Marshall was a brilliant, stubborn and irascible figure. A civil rights lawyer turned Supreme Court justice, he used his knowledge of the law and a passion fueled by his own experiences to help remedy the conditions of all Americans, those bound and, seemingly, unbound by social strictures. Marshall is best known for winning Brown v. Board of Education, the case that began to undo the shibboleths of American segregation, and for his writings as a Supreme Court justice.
Onstage in “Thurgood,” George Stevens Jr.’s retrospective play that opened under Michael Robins’ direction over the weekend at the Illusion Theater, Marshall is surprisingly mild-mannered and meek. Admittedly, we meet him near the end of his life, after he has returned to Howard University Law School, his alma mater, to address students. As played by the masterful James Craven, this Thurgood is genial and avuncular, a man with a sharp sense of humor and a briefcase full of illustrative stories.
Stevens’ play uses anecdotes as a prism on Marshall. He was descended from a captured Congolese man who, after enslavement in America, won his freedom because he was so disagreeable. We learn of Marshall’s childhood in Baltimore, and of his father’s work as a Pullman porter. We hear of his friendship with schoolmate Langston Hughes.
The stories offer some color but surprisingly do not amount to great drama in this one-person show. And that is not a knock on either Craven, who is warm and winning as he fills out his character, or on Robins, whose staging is sensitive.
Instead, as Craven walks the stage, going from lectern to chair, we get the sense of a man walking the stations of his life. Marshall is a monumental jurist but the playwright tries too hard to make him likable. And some of the anecdotes seem too pat, even if based on real history.
In one story, Thurgood is spirited by Tennessee lawmen into a wooded area where others are preparing a noose to lynch him. But Marshall’s friends intervene and he escapes — a rare scenario in the history of lynching in America.
The playwright uses another true story that sounds at odds with the icon. Marshall worked as a waiter and a patron summoned him on several occasions by using the N-word. The man tipped well, though, and Marshall said he didn’t mind the slur so long as it came with money.
The play does get kudos for presenting information about Marshall that is not widely known, even if, in sum, it sometimes feels like a Wikipedia entry.
Marshall was impressed by Hughes, his Lincoln University schoolmate, after the young poet led a successful campaign to hire black faculty members. “Thurgood” ends, fittingly, with a Hughes poem, “Let America Be America Again,” that nicely sums up Marshall’s contradictory feelings about his beloved country:
“O, let America be America again— / The land that never has been yet — / And yet must be — the land where every man is free.”