When Thurgood Marshall was practicing law in the 1950s, ingrained racism lurked at every turn, in every town, in every school, in the Congress and the Supreme Court. When President Trump takes office in ten days, we will be hurled back into the fifties, without someone like Marshall to enforce “equality under the law.”
George Stevens, Jr.’s THURGOOD (at New Repertory Theatre through Feb 5th) is a chilling reminder of our country’s shameful past—and an alarming realization that the past has become the future. It’s exactly what Yeats predicted in his prophetic and apocalyptic poem, THE SECOND COMING: The present has given birth to the past.
When Stevens wrote the play, of course he had no idea it would resonate so terrifyingly now. He carefully chronicles the years in Marshall’s life: His rise from headstrong child into the determined lawyer who worked tirelessly for social justice—and who argued and won the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision before the U.S. Supreme Court (that “separate but equal” education is not equal under the law). To cap a remarkable career, he himself was appointed to the Supreme Court.
Director Benny Sato Ambush’s thoughtful production moves seamlessly from one adventure to another but Stevens’ script gets lost in the minutia. For one thing, it runs awfully long for a solo performance—although Johnny Lee Davenport gives a tour de force as Marshall—and the genuinely harrowing experiences, where Marshall’s life stood in danger, are given short shrift. As are his personal crises. He touches briefly, for one sentence, on his “drinking” and his “love of women” but that’s it. It would have been a much fuller portrait of the great man if we heard how he overcame his own personal trials and tribulations. As the play exists, it’s a charming history lesson, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s just that in my opinion it could have been much more.