Dallas — In summing up his approach to jurisprudence, the great Thurgood Marshall is quoted as having remarked, “You do what you think is right and let the law catch up.” Though the Thurgood Marshall of Bishop Arts Theatre Center’s production of Thurgood, a one-man show depicting the life and career of one of America’s preeminent legal minds, never speaks this line directly, its sentiment acts as a thesis of sorts for the show. Always striving for what he believed to be right, Marshall’s storied legal career took him from fighting for law school admission for an African American student, to working with the NAACP to defend voting rights in Texas, to the end of the “separate but equal” doctrine in public education, all the way to a seat on the United States Supreme Court. While it might sound like a production that would appeal more to lawyers and historians than the general public, the play’s discussion of the history of race relations in America, touching on equal treatment under the law, police brutality, as well as the right to free speech, resonates as strongly now as when Marshall himself lived and worked, and the warmth, humor, and humanity of Marshall shines through.
This production of Thurgood was mounted last year at Jubilee Theatre (who partners with BATC for this production) with the same cast and director (Harry Parker, Chair of the TCU Department of Theatre as well as a professor at the university), and the familiarity and comfort of the production team with the material shows quite clearly. The show’s star, Selmore Haines III, who won a Dallas-Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum Award for this role, brings an easy charm to the title role, and avoids (as much as possible) the play’s impulse to sanctify his character. The actor’s only misstep—which fades somewhat as the play goes on—is in adopting a somewhat over-enunciated style for Marshall, perhaps to make shifts to other characters more obvious. Otherwise, Haines glides genially through the life and times of his character, highlighting Marshall’s early experiences of poverty and discrimination (in a touching moment, Marshall describes his mother selling her wedding and engagement rings to pay for him to go to study law at the only law school that accepted African Americans in Baltimore) and how the prejudices he faced shaped his legal career. The play reaches a natural zenith with Marshall’s arguments in Brown v. Board of Education, and Haines has some of his best moments arguing first as the unctuous “lawyer’s lawyer” John W. Davis, then facing off with Davis as Marshall in a passionate plea for the dignity of African American students.
All the elements of the production design work in harmony. Precise lighting and sound cues (courtesy of Nikki Deshea Smith and David Lanza, respectively) work seamlessly with Haines’ performance to set both scene changes and moods. The cinematic pedigree of the playwright is apparent in the use of projected images (designed for this production by Chase York) to enhance the story—a whited out American flag acts as the screen for images of sharecropper’s cottages, “doghouse schools”, the marble edifice of the Supreme Court building, and pictures of the various historical figures Marshall discusses. One odd element of this production is the choice to include an intermission, which was perhaps a decision made late in the production process. While the program indicates the performance will be in one act, with no intermission, the show has actually been split into two acts, with the intermission falling during the segment dealing with the Brown verdict; this decision doesn’t exactly derail the action, but some story momentum is lost.
Written by George Stevens, Jr., the play (his only to date) was clearly a labor of love. Stevens, a prolific writer, director, and producer, as well as founding member of the American Film Institute, wrote and directed a made-for-TV movie about the Brown v. Board of Education decision starring Sidney Poitier as Marshall, but Stevens’ imagination was clearly caught by Marshall. The play premiered in 2006 with James Earl Jones in the title role, and moved to Broadway in 2008 starring Laurence Fishburne, who would later star in the filmed adaptation of the play. The script avoids some of the common pitfalls of the one-man show with its framing device—the aging Marshall is depicted as addressing a class of Howard Law students at the end of his career, making the fourth-wall breaking audience interaction feel significantly more natural than it might’ve otherwise. (This framing device also works synergistically with BATC’s venue, which doubles quite nicely as a school auditorium.) But although Marshall’s career and the origins of his convictions may have fascinated Stevens, Marshall’s personal life is at times paid short shrift—the loss of Marshall’s first wife, for instance, is acknowledged, but passed over with almost indecent haste, and oddly, there is almost no discussion of the reason for Marshall’s decision to pursue the law (he originally intended to pursue dentistry). There is a sense that, barring a few joking references to Marshall’s unseemly interest in booze and women, some of the rougher edges of the character may have been smoothed out to present a more coherent whole.
An interesting historical fact remarked on by the play is that Marshall, a champion for African-American rights in the legal arena, was close friends with the poet Langston Hughes in college, who was another great agitator for equal rights, though his social activism was through his art. Marshall, at the end of his tenure with the Supreme Court and only a few years from his death, closes the show with a recitation of some of the final lines of Hughes’ poem “Let America Be America Again.” A tongue-in-cheek lament for the great days of America (an experience denied its African-American citizens), the poem ends with a note of hope for America’s future for all its peoples:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!”