BWW Review: Johnny Lee Davenport Measures Up in THURGOOD
Written by George Stevens, Jr., Directed by Benny Sato Ambush; Scenic Designer, Ryan Bates; Lighting Designer, Bridget K. Doyle; Composer & Sound Designer, Dewey Dellay; Rehearsal Stage Manager, Jaclyn Fulton; Performance Stage Manager, Becca Freifeld
CAST: Johnny Lee Davenport
Johnny Lee Davenport appears alone onstage in the Black Box Theater in New Rep's powerful production of George Stevens, Jr.'s Thurgood. However, despite the lack of his physical presence alongside the actor, Director Benny Sato Ambush firmly stamps this solo play with his earmarks as he collaborates with Davenport for the seventh time. Together, they create a humanized portrait of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall that is at once relatable and larger-than-life, taking care to present him as a good citizen who took that precious responsibility seriously. Marshall enlisted in the hard-fought battle to make the United States Constitution and the nation's laws work for black people, earning him the sobriquet Mr. Civil Rights.
With all of the whining about a rigged system and rigged election that flooded the cyber-verse in 2016, it is worth examining how our system was genuinely rigged to discriminate against its African-American citizenry following the Civil War and for a century thereafter. Fortifying the discrimination, in the 1896 landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court upheld state racial segregation laws for public facilities under the doctrine of "separate but equal," denying that they violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. (The clause, which took effect in 1868, provides that no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction "the equal protection of the laws".) When Marshall became an attorney and signed on to work with the NAACP, he traveled thousands of miles around the country to take on instances where separate opportunity was not equal.
Most notably, Marshall argued the Brown v. Board of Education case before the Supreme Court, which, in 1954, unanimously voted to overturn the provisions of Plessy v. Ferguson. As he admits in the play, he rather naively thought that all of the nation's schools would integrate within five years. However, the Brown decision did not end the struggle as the Court failed to spell out a method for ending racial segregation in the schools, and many Southern states put forth a variety of legal maneuvers to buck the outcome for many years. It remains one of the jewels in the crown of Marshall's legacy, along with his appointment as the first African-American Associate Justice to sit on the Supreme Court (1967-1991).
Ryan Bates sets the stage with a high-backed, crimson swivel chair, a table, and a stack of law books. The rear wall features a display of photos that are individually lit (Bridget K. Doyle) aS Marshall talks about each represented subject. They range from a lovely portrait of his wife "Buster," who died much too young (age 44) of cancer, to a graphic image of a lynching. Above the display is a projection of the words on the western façade of the Supreme Court Building, "Equal Justice Under Law." Davenport enters in near darkness, a silhouette of a bent man toting a briefcase and leaning on a cane. He holds a pose momentarily, taking in the audience and his surroundings, before removing his trench coat and fedora and hanging them on a coat tree. While the pose is a simple gesture, it sets up the conceit that Marshall is speaking to a Howard University auditorium filled with students, telling his life story as it intertwined with the Civil Rights movement.
Thurgood is equal parts character study and history lesson, both of which are equally compelling. In portraying Marshall, Davenport adopts a professorial persona when he is relating his family history, and switches his bearing to reenact his appearances before the bench. He adjusts his posture and gait to reflect the aging process, as well. Throughout, Davenport infuses the character with warmth and intelligence, shows some of his periods of doubt and disappointment, and drives home the quality of Marshall's character, earning respect and admiration from the audience.
There is much in the script that resonates in the racial, social, and political zeitgeist of 2017, but perhaps nothing so strongly as the mention that President Nixon appointed four justices to the Supreme Court in just four years, evoking an audible collective gasp from the audience. It reinforces just how high the stakes are as a new administration takes the reins of our government. The experience of this play at this time is both uplifting and depressing, but Thurgood serves as a powerful reminder that one man can make a difference. It is a cautionary tale, as well as a blueprint for a hopeful future. Stevens concludes with Marshall reciting a portion of the Langston Hughes poem "Let America Be America Again." It is one we should all commit to memory and strive to fulfill its plea. Below is just a snippet.
O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!
Photo credit: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures (Johnny Lee Davenport)