“We got here because somebody — a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony or a few nuns — bent down and helped us pick up our boots.” - Justice Thurgood Marshall
Fort Worth — In July of 1908, Thurgood (Thoroughgood) Marshall was born in Bethesda, Maryland. In the month following his birth, in Springfield, Illinois, a mob of 150 whites lynched two black men (one of whom was 84 years old), burned down black-owned businesses and homes, and any business black or white that served black customers. They were exacting vengeance because they believed a rumor that two black men had assaulted two white women in separate incidents one evening. When the police could not apprehend the suspects, the mob took things into their own hands. By the end of that terroristic act, approximately 2,000 black people were driven out of Springfield, and six were shot and killed.
This was the America into which Marshall was born. Nothing about the atmosphere of that time suggested this baby would grow up to become the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court of the United States, but that is what happened. Playing now at Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth, Thurgood, by George Stevens, Jr. is a one-man play that profiles the life of Justice Marshall.
Harry Parker (TCU’s theatre department chair) has worked with Selmore Haines III (Thurgood Marshall) in shaping Stevens’ play into an engaging hour-and-a-half of theater. This script moves more like a documentary than dramatic literature. This might be due to Stevens’ background in television and film, and to the fact that this was his first play, which starred James Earl Jones and then Laurence Fishburne on Broadway and in an HBO movie of the play.
It falls to Haines to bring a storytelling feel to the piece, which he does.
Haines has the physical bearing and presence for the role. His opening cadence seems at first a little affected but that disappears after a few minutes as we realize he adopts the voices of several characters and his title character’s voice changes over time as Marshall matures and collects more confidence. The voice is important here as it was through the Justice’s voice that most Americans first met him. This was the age of radio and newspapers. Some of the necessary silences could have been a little longer but overall, his performance is winsome and leaves one wanting to learn more about this Justice to whom Americans owe so much.
The play walks the audience through Marshall’s beginnings including his given name at birth, and other influences that informed his love for and approach to the law. The lighting (Nikki Deshea Smith) helps to clarify whom is speaking and where. The set design (Brian Clinnin) includes video projections (Chase York) of images supporting the events leading up to the creation of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and the fight for Civil Rights.
The play’s apex is the trial for which Thurgood Marshall became most identified—Brown v Board of Education—that he successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. Brown v. Board of Education essentially nullified Plessy v Ferguson (often referred to as the “separate but equal” court ruling) and ended legal segregation in public schools. The play takes us through Marshall’s retirement from the court.
President Bill Clinton awarded Justice Marshall the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 1993. Selmore Haines, III brings us closer to the man we only thought we knew.