It’s a great time in Washington to re-evaluate through drama the weights and balances of our justice system. Downtown at Arena Stage we’re watching Scalia’s story, penned as The Originalist, which preceded the opening out here at Olney Theatre Center this weekend of Thurgood. It’s hard to believe that for a short time these two men, Antonin Scalia and Thurgood Marshall, shared serving on the bench of the Supreme Court. You can bet these giants, representing two very different sides, fought passionately as they addressed the issue of how we read the Constitution. Both deserve our respect as American originals, representing consistency, transparency, and integrity.
Playwright George Stevens, Jr. has done an important service in bringing Thurgood into focus, a man who fought long and hard and did so much for civil rights but one thus far who has not got his just due in history’s retelling. In writing up Marshall’s story, Stevens got lucky in working with a larger than life personality with a great sense of humor and relish for storytelling to win his day.
Stevens’ play takes a long panoramic sweep, perhaps too long, through the man’s life. But one of the strengths of this bio-drama narrative is to show the keenness of this man’s powers of observation that helped shape his positions.
Early on in the play, Thurgood tells the audience how in Baltimore he watched from an upstairs window the African American males who’d been picked up by the police and hauled into the jail courtyard next door. He watched them beaten and verbally abused. Later, he recounts traveling countless times into the heavily segregated South to witness the degradations and fears African Americans lived with daily. One time he himself was nearly lynched.
The play also reminds us how lonely the long fight could be. By being on the road and preparing case after case to replace the “separate but equal” sham laws, Marshall sacrificed time spent with his first wife, whom he learns was fighting her own battle with cancer. He was also increasingly fighting members of his own race, who were impatient with the law and the Congresses’ recalcitrance which seemed only to agree on “keeping the Negro down.” Marshall often seemed to stand alone, continuing to believe in the system and that justice would prevail.
closes August 20, 2017
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Brian Anthony Wilson has taken on the giant Marshall. He is at his best when he lets us into the Marshall’s sense of humor and generous humanity. He gets Marshall’s physicality and to the end, his plain, grounded way of being. He gets the bemusement of his “audience” with President Johnson who has just offered him a Supreme Court position. He also gets the irony of being sworn in by Justice Black who had once held membership in the KKK.
The names of the stars of that period of history swirl through his life story. His arc spans a friendship with Langston Hughes to working beside Supreme Court Justices including Sandra Day O’Connor. He represents the intersection of politically established Whites and the pioneer African Americans who still tasted if not the lash of slavery certainly the sting of verbal abuse and denied equality of opportunity. Yet he was indefatigable and persevered, worked alongside those he could, and persuaded or tried to persuade those who were open to change. President Johnson appointed Marshall the first African American U.S. Solicitor General and then the first to the Supreme Court.
Wilson has a hell of a mountain to climb to fill Marshall’s shoes. Playwright Stevens hasn’t made it any easier with a script that has him alone on stage for an hour and a half plowing through a “landmark case” of verbiage.
I reviewed his second public performance. There were more than a few stumbles and dropped words. Several times he had to criss-cross back to the script, correcting himself. At one point I thought he was reading his lines. The legal verbiage in particular tripped him up. Part of the problem I felt was that he was delivering much of the language at almost break neck speed. In my own deliberating on the performance, I turned to an interview with Mike Wallace in the 1960’s where we get Marshall answering questions –all with a considered, deliberate rhythm of speech. His “at’all” was particular and an important key to his highly educated speech. He was a man who chose words wisely and used them well.
When Wilson gets these volumes of words under his belt and he can truly relish them, play the music of them, befitting a man who loves telling a story, he will be as persuasive, I believe, as the man who delivered what became Murray v. Pearson (forcing the racist University of Maryland to accept a Black student,) Smith v. Allwright (putting an end to white-only primaries in many southern states,) and perhaps the most famous Brown v. Board of Education (ending legal segregation in schools.)
The man was indeed a giant and persuasive in so many cases that our Constitution is a living, breathing document that must live up to America’s promise “all equal under law.”
Director Walter Dallas knows the importance now of putting this case before us. Scenic designer Paige Hathaway colludes, taking us into the simple “gravitas” world Supreme Justice chambers. Zachary G Borovay provides us with slides bringing key visuals to the history of 20th-century America.
Stevens brings us round at the end of Langston Hughes eloquent plea, “Let America Be America Again.”
P.S. Worth remembering that Thurgood Marshall was replaced by Justice Clarence Thomas.
Thurgood. Written by George Stevens, Jr. Directed by Walter Dallas. Scenic Design by Paige Hathaway. Costume Design by Seth Gilbert. Lighting Design by Harold F. Burgess II. Sound Design by Roc Lee. Projection Design by Zachary G. Borovay. Featuring Brian Anthony Wilson. Produced by Olney Theatre Center . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.