• Date:
    April 1, 2008
    Review by:
    Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus.

    A Review by Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus.

    Here's a joke. What's better than one dead lawyer in the road? Answer: Two dead lawyers. There's lots of lawyer jokes out there that many people think are funny, but this group of professionals really gets an undeserved bad rap. When something goes wrong -- you're arrested, injured, or your civil rights are violated -- what's the first thing we do? Call a lawyer.

    It's a love-hate relationship we have with these advocates, but for Thurgood Marshall, it was only love. His professor at Howard University Law School said, "A lawyer who is not a social engineer is a social parasite," and Marshall took those words to heart, using his legal talents to change the country.

    Entering stage right, slightly stooped, carrying a cane, Thurgood Marshall takes center stage, and traces of Laurence Fishburne, who plays the great Justice, immediately slip away. His characterization of the first black Supreme Court Justice is all-encompassing and all-knowing.

    Writer George Stevens, Jr. takes us through the major accomplishments and events in Marshall�s life: a descendant of slaves, he rose from meager beginnings in Baltimore to the most honored position in the Judicial Branch of the United States government, having argued one of the most important cases ever to come before the Supreme Court. His ascendance is remarkable, both for the times in which he lived, and the government he served. The story is very much a story we live every day, the civil rights struggles that began after 1865 and continue into the present.

    Marshall rose to fame in 1954 as a young lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, challenging Plessy v. Ferguson which gave us "separate but equal" education, the norm in the South. The young lawyer refuted the decision as discriminatory, and in the benchmark case, Brown v. Board of Education, Marshall argued that "separate but equal" was not equal.

    It'll give you chills and make the hair on your arms stand straight up as voiceovers of Justice Earl Warren proclaim the majority decision in favor of Brown (as it has come to be known), and now, over fifty years later, it still has a ringing impact.

    Stevens' script relies heavily on his successful miniseries, "Separate But Equal," which dealt with Marshall's role in Brown, however, this play is more than a summary of one event. From the man who was denied acceptance into the University of Maryland, and could only gain admission into Howard University (an all-black college where he roomed with poet Langston Hughes), we begin to understand the essence of Justice Marshall. But mostly, we appreciate his passion for the law, which he insisted was a "most powerful weapon, if you know how to use it."

    Fishburne seamlessly weaves in and out of historical events and anecdotes, becoming both the young impassioned Marshall and the elder wise statesman, right before our eyes. His charisma and self-deprecating humor is conveyed, and it's that quality that makes this lecture-formatted history lesson entertaining.

    Two disappointments, however, loom large with "Thurgood," one with the title and the other with the script. The actual title of the show is not simply "Thurgood," but "Thurgood starring Laurence Fishburne" which seems to imply that the producers didn't believe "Thurgood" would find an audience without promoting the famous African-American movie star.

    The second problem is the whitewashed script, as it were, barely mentioning Marshall's heavy drinking, and totally ignoring his womanizing and sexual harassment behavior, an offense that could get him disbarred today.

    But let's take the high road here. Justice Marshall remains an iconic figure who embodied our cultural conscience as he led us closer to the America that Langston Hughes envisioned as "the land where every man is free." While the material in the play is not new, it still stings when revisited by thinking Americans. "Thurgood" is vital today, especially given our Presidential race, and deserves our utmost attention.

    Not only should you see it, but so should your high school- and college-age children because Fishburne tells about a monumental time in history and makes it live.

    Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus

    What the press had to say.....

    "A no-frills documentary in the first person, essentially an opportunity to watch a movie star deliver a history lecture. But since Mr. Fishburne is an effortlessly compelling actor, and the history in question is charged with a moral urgency that still resonates today, �Thurgood� is surprisingly absorbing, at times even stirring."
    Charles Isherwood
    New York Times

    "Doesn't break a lot of new ground, but it is a worthwhile story rich in history, humanity and humor. "
    Joe Dziemianowicz
    New York Daily News

    "While it's undoubtedly a triumph for Fishburne, there is only one character, one tone, and neither tension nor climax."
    Clive Barnes
    New York Post

    "More enlightening than entertaining, "Thurgood" is a worthy reminder of how one determined person, working with others, can help to change the world."
    Michael Sommers

    "The performance is unmodulated and the production is bland to the point of ennui. "Thurgood" commands Fishburne's attention a lot more effectively than it did mine. "
    Jeremy Gerard

    "Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall has met his match in actor Laurence Fishburne, who brings him vibrantly to life."
    Jacques LeSourd
    The Journal News

    "It's engaging, informative, amusing and inspiring."
    Robert Feldberg
    The Record

    "A one-man show that is part biography, part history lesson and part inspirational sermon. Fishburne has the theatrical, larger-than-life demeanour of an old-fashioned preacher, including the necessary pizazz to keep an audience's attention for an intermissionless 90 minutes."
    Michael Kuchwara
    Associated Press

    "Laurence Fishburne delivers a superb turn as the famed Supreme Court justice in this somewhat dry solo biodrama."
    Frank Scheck
    Hollywood Reporter

    "A few minutes into "Thurgood" and he's got the audience eating right out of his hand. While that image may serve to describe the star power of Laurence Fishburne, it applies just as well to the late Thurgood Marshall, the subject of this one-man show "
    Marilyn Stasio