As the first African-American to sit on the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall is one of the most important judges in U.S. history. He remained on the Court from 1967 until 1991. His leadership through the Civil Rights movement is well documented, especially his victory in Brown v. Board of Education, a 1954 decision that ruled that segregated public schools were unconstitutional.
Yet, there’s still so much about the man and his accomplishments that tend to be lost on people today. These forgotten and historic moments are the subject of George Stevens, Jr.’s one-man show, Thurgood, now playing at the Olney Theatre through Aug. 20.
The play first premiered at the Westport County Playhouse in 2006 with James Earl Jones in the title role, and followed on Broadway with Laurence Fishburne, who reprised it at the Kennedy Center for a filmed version for HBO.
Brian Anthony Wilson takes on the intimidating figure in the Olney production, directed by Walter Dallas.
“This was something that really scared me, so I knew I had to do it,” Wilson says. “I love being on stage and interacting with other actors and disappearing into the character and a one-man show is something I was very uncomfortable with.”
It’s not that he hasn’t had big parts to play in the past. Just this year he played Titus in Titus Andronicus and Troy in Fences, but for Thurgood, he needed to commit 45 pages to memory and had no one to interact with on the stage.
“This is a daunting task. I know a lot of great actors who haven’t done one-man shows, it’s a job some people don’t like to take,” he says. “I knew it would be a great challenge, and it has been the greatest challenge of my career.”
Another thing that frightened Wilson was being able to do justice to Marshall in a way that honored his legacy.
“I didn’t want to screw that up,” he says. “I was also very interested in working with Walter, and that has been a great experience.”
Wilson’s only other one-man show was Looking Over the Presidents Shoulder, James Still’s play about Alonzo Fields, the man who served four different presidents.
at Olney Theatre Center
closes August 20, 2017
Details and tickets
“He was also a frustrated opera singer, but because of racism couldn’t pursue his goal,” the deep-voiced actor says. “That was a great experience. We were able to borrow some of the authentic White House china for the play and I learned quite a lot about him.”
Although Wilson has a lengthy resume of film, TV and theater roles, these were two of the only real-life figures the actor has ever played. So, when researching Marshall for his current role, he received a dearth of material from the dramatist and read biographies and looked at other material online.
“This is my interpretation of what he was like when he was younger,” he says. Throughout the course of the play, Marshall ages from 16 to 82, so it’s a wide range of his life that the actor is covering. “I try to do his voice, although that changed as he got older. He was a rare maverick and I explore his personal life and some of his demons. And I have to be as laser-focused as he was when he was in court.”
“The premise is he’s speaking at Howard University for a lecture and he’s talking about his life, and through the course of that, he goes back in memory,” Wilson says. “He talks about college and law school and the love of his life and his kids, plus his fights and struggles in the South as a black lawyer.”
“Just the things he went through in going down South even with his career, dealing with discrimination and soldiers’ rights, I learned a plethora of things I had no idea about,” Wilson says. “I’m sort of ashamed. I didn’t know he was a federal judge and Solicitor General first. I should have known more. What he accomplished for my race, it’s outstanding what he did. He was the perfect fit to be on the Court because of his background and dedication to the law.”
As an actor, Wilson enjoys the different mediums, but if forced into one, it would be theater.
“You get to do it for a month or longer, and get to tell a story from beginning, middle to end,” he says. “I love a live audience and hearing their responses. There’s nothing like that visceral experience and the vibe you get.”
One recent audience member knew Justice Marshall and told Wilson it was eerie to see him come out on stage and look so much and sound so much like him. Another person said they had forgotten they were watching a play.
“Other people who had seen the Laurence Fishburne production—Olney is a lot more intimate—and they said they got a little more out of this and I give a lot of credit to Walter Dallas and his direction,” Wilson says. “My voice is overpowering, and Walter toned me down a lot and made it more conversational and more appealing. It’s been a thrill every night.”