If Thurgood Marshall had done nothing more than win Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), thus forever striking down the “separate but equal” doctrine of segregation, he would have done more for the cause of civil rights in America than anyone save Martin Luther King.
Of course, he did more – much more – and his amazing life is sufficient to stuff George Stevens, Jr’s fine play with anecdote, humor, excitement, horror and triumph. Part of it is Stevens’ writing, part of it is Laurence Fishburne’s spot-on performance, but most of it is the life that Marshall lived, and the role he played, frankly, in straightening America out.
Many great people succeed by doing things that other people tell them they cannot do. In Marshall’s case, though, the other people were carrying shotguns, and had slavering German Shepherds with them. Marshall used the legal skills of a Cardozo, the stubbornness of a mule, brass cojones and nerves of steel to overcome them.
Fishburne portrays Justice Marshall as a sort of revered storyteller – the famous uncle who comes to your family reunion and holds you all in thrall. (In fact, the setting is technically a lecture at Howard University law school, which he was forced to attend as a student because the University of Maryland did not admit African Americans.) He reflects in triumph but never lets you forget what the stakes were in the days when he practiced law in behalf of civil rights. Harry Briggs, the mechanic who first brought the lawsuit which eventually became part of Brown, lost his job the day after he filed his case. And Marshall notes that on the day before he went to Louisiana in a voter’s-rights case, a local sheriff shot a man for registering to vote.
Most of Marshall’s early work, under the tutelage of the legendary Charles Hamilton Houston, involved forcing white-dominated governments, not to desegregate, but to provide equal treatment to African-Americans. After all, Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), the Supreme Court case which permitted segregation, required that if treatment was to be separate, it must be equal. Houston and Marshall won some surprising victories in the thirties and forties, and as Marshall became Chief Counsel for the NAACP, this remained the guiding strategy of its legal team. When Marshall came down to South Carolina to represent Mr. Briggs, his principal legal objective was to assure a decent education for his client’s son, but when the presiding judge invited him to make a broader attack on segregation in South Carolina, he did not hesitate. He lost, but the ensuing appeal to the Supreme Court marked his opportunity to strike down segregation forever.
Thurgood’s depiction of the battle before the Supreme Court is riveting. Marshall’s opponent was John W. Davis, the “lawyer’s lawyer” and former Democratic nominee for President (1924) who had argued more cases before the Supreme Court than anyone whose name wasn’t Daniel Webster. The Justices were hostile and contentious – Marshall could count only three sure votes, and he knew he had an implacable enemy in Chief Justice Fred Vinson – and their questions buzzed around Marshall like a swarm of wasps. When he was done, he walked through Washington in the rain, convinced he had lost.
But then something happened that raised the specter of a benevolent God – Chief Justice Vinson died, and President Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren in his place. This did not initially please Marshall, who remembered that Warren as Attorney General of California had litigated for the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second war. But to his surprise…well, you know what happened. Marshall stands with his eyes focused on the Court’s columns as Warren’s plainspun voice reads out the decision. It is like watching America be born again.
I cannot overstate how good Fishburne is in this. Those of us who remember Justice Marshall, in his later years, will marvel at how well the actor has captured the great judge’s throaty rumble. (Fishburne does Marshall as an old man only at the beginning of the play, to capture the setting, and at the end, when he reviews the final events in Marshall’s professional life). Thurgood Marshall was a man with a healthy ego, and not without his shortcomings. Stevens and Fishburne do not avoid the less attractive aspects of the man, but they do not make them the central focus, either. Fishburne’s Marshall approaches his faults with a wink and a leer, as I suspect the real Marshall approached them as well.
The play, which apparently came to the Kennedy Center upon the recommendation of the Hon. Stephen G. Breyer, has been sold out virtually from the moment the Kennedy Center announced its place on the schedule. The playwright had arranged for the production I saw to be videotaped, and for this videotape to be made available to educational institutions. If you have not seen Thurgood, I highly recommend that you see the videotape, even if you have to re-enroll in school to do so. Or see it in New York. Or whatever. It’s that good.
The play ends with Justice Marshall’s retirement. Retirement is good in that once retired you can pretty much do anything you want. Justice Marshall could have visited, for example, the University of Maryland law school, which had excluded him as a student because of his race. He could have even gone to the law school library, where he could flip through the Supreme Court Reporter like an indulgent uncle looking over a photo album. It would not have been hard for him to find the law library. All he would have to is ask where the Thurgood Marshall Law Library was, and anyone could have shown him.
By George Stevens
Directed by Leonard Foglia
Produced at the Kennedy Center
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Thurgood is playing thru June 20, 2010, and is, as the reviewer states, sold out. Call the box office for any last minute cancellations. 202 467-4600.