New Rep Theatre has started off 2017 with a bang. The current Black Box production of George Stevens, Jr.'s "Thurgood" left me speechless and in tears. This one man play allows superb actor Johnny Lee Davenport the freedom to spend two hours weaving a tale of Thurgood Marshall's journey from the slums of Baltimore to a seat on the bench on the highest court in the land. It is an extraordinary performance recapturing the life of a man who made history during several crucial and tumultuous decades of the 20th century.
The play is part of New Rep's "Prophetic Portraits" series, and is not to be missed. I thought I knew quite about about the first African American to serve as a Supreme Court Justice, but this play filled in many important gaps. Mr. Marshall described himself as stubborn and hard to handle - even as a young boy. He refers to ancestors from whom he inherited these traits. Some of these progenitors are shown in photos that make up the backdrop of Ryan Bates' set design. As part of Bridget K. Doyle's lighting design, these pictures are illuminated as the actor talks about the person in question. Action is often punctuated by sound effects that are part of the sound design of Dewey Dellay. When the play was first written, it was a rather static piece, with Mr. Marshall sitting and addressing a group of Howard University students in a lecture hall. Mr. Davenport and Director Benny Sato Ambush have added some dynamic elements that help to sustain the audience's attention during the two hour one act play. The character moves within the lecture hall space that is the set, using a portable lectern to depict Marshall reading briefs to the court, climbing steps to gain a different perspective, sitting on a pile of legal documents in one corner of the space to address a different part of the audience, relaxing in his leather chair. It all flows together seamlessly and with a well considered sense of pace.
As a young boy, Thurgood's tendency to drive adult authority figures crazy led him to be often banished to the boiler room with instructions to read from a copy of the U.S. Constitution until he could get himself together enough to behave. The result of this creative punishment was that he memorized virtually the whole document. It lived with him for the rest of his life and was the driving force in his legal career - particularly the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
Before ascending to the Supreme Court, Marshall made a name for himself as the lead attorney for the NAACP Defense Fund. He argued and won the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that ordered the end to segregation in public schools. He spent many years thereafter fighting to ensure that southern states were forced to obey the law despite ferocious opposition from governors and state legislatures in the former Confederate States.
An interesting part of the play was Marshall's description of his interactions with Martin Luther King, Jr. Marshall pointed out to Martin that Marshall fought for racial equality by using and enforcing the law, while Martin chose the route of civil disobedience to the law. The play makes it clear that Justice Marshall was no plaster saint, fighting a career-long reputation for womanizing and imbibing. But this flawed human being boldly addressed flaws in our nation's application of the principle of Equal Justice Under The Law.
|Johnny Lee Davenport as Thurgood Marshall|
"Thurgood" by George Stevens, Jr.
New Repertory Theatre
Mosesian Center for the Arts
Through February 5, 2017
Mr. Davenport's performance is egregiously good - depicting the aging of Mr. Marshall throughout the course of the narration of his life's journey as his posture and vocalizations evolve and devolve. He uses the supple instrument of his voice with power, subtlety and grace to create moods of tension, fear, anticipation, disappointment, rage, anguish, hope, and euphoria.
Thurgood Marshall left a legacy that inspires. And as we stand on the brink of an era which threatens to hurl us back into the Dark Ages, we need anchors like Marshall's life story to encourage us not to despair and not to give up hope.
Go see this play and be reinvigorated.
New Rep Website