BWW Review: THURGOOD at Geva Theatre
Rochester's Geva Theatre has followed its Wilson Stage season opener Hair with another production of weighty political significance. While Hair deals with the cultural and social impact of the hippy movement in the 19060's, Thurgood explores the life and legal/historical contributions of Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to sit on the United States Supreme Court. These top-quality productions highlight Geva's commitment to not only entertain its audience, but to educate, inform, and enrich as well.
Thurgood is an autobiographical one-man show in which iconic Supreme Court Justice and civil rights hero Thurgood Marshall (Lester Purry) takes the audience through his upbringing, legal career, and the events that shaped both his judicial philosophy and the trajectory of the civil rights movement in America. The production covers Marshall's legal education and early career in the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; his time arguing cases in the Jim Crow south; his role in the monumentous Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education; and his appointment to the nation's highest court by Lyndon B. Johnson. Far from a sleepy retelling of historical events, Lester Purry's Thurgood Marshall punctuates his stories with frequent humor and anecdotes that illustrate his lesser-known family life and personal journey, which are often forgotten by civics books in favor of his historical impact on the struggle for African-American equality.
To say that Lester Purry gives a powerhouse performance is a titanic understatement. He embodies Thurgood Marshall across the span of 50+ years, convincingly changing his voice and stage presence to reflect the many chapters of the man's life without losing his mannerisms and lasting traits. The ways in which he describes Marshall's relationship with his wives, his travels across racially segregated America, and even his brief encounters with the KKK are spirited, heartfelt, and often extremely funny. Perhaps the most lasting impact of his portrayal of this iconic American is the way in which he romanticizes the law and conveys Thurgood Marshall's deep reverence for the constitution, in spite of the way it was being weaponized at the time to suppress every facet of African-American life. The script, albeit being a little disjointed (one story sometimes leads into the next with little connective tissue), communicates Marshall's exaltation of the law with lines like "a man who is a lawyer who isn't a social engineer is a social parasite", and Lester Purry is the perfect person to embody this legal titan and communicate his legacy to the audience.
The production does an excellent job of pairing Purry's narrative storytelling with audiovisual footage and archival photographs displayed upon the set's enormous backdrop of the Constitution. It's a nice extra layer to this one-person show, which are often extremely minimalist with regard to production value.
Given the current political climate and resurgence of racism, xenophobia, and general intolerance that we're unfortunately experiencing across America today, this is the perfect time to stage productions like Thurgood. They educate and inform, but also remind us that real change happens not only through marches and boycotts, but through the slow, methodical, and committed work day-after-day by fighters like Thurgood Marshall. Geva's production of Thurgood is spirited, captivating, and one that folks from all walks of life will benefit from seeing.