BWW Review: THURGOOD at Olney Theatre Center - Supreme Court Justice Comes Alive
THURGOOD at Olney Theatre Center - Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall Comes Alive
Have you ever wondered why Baltimore-Washington Airport was re-named Thurgood Marshall Airport?
Did you ever notice a sculpture of Justice Marshall in the rear of the U.S. District Court House on Pratt Street in Baltimore ?(I've always wondered why it is not in the front of the Court House on Lombard Street?).
Did you know the library of the University of Maryland Law School is named for the late Justice Marshall and that he refused to ever set foot in it?
Well, these are all facts which did not make it into the wonderful exhilarating play entitled THURGOOD. This historic and yet funny depiction of Marshall's long 84 year life was written by George Stevens, Jr. and first appeared on Broadway with Laurence Fisburne in the title role for which he won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play. Stevens also was responsible for the ABC 1991 miniseries "Separate But Equal".
Brian Anthony Wilson gives a bravura performance as the Supreme Court Justice who hailed from Baltimore, Maryland. Stevens' play introduces us to Marshall's upbringing in Baltimore and the discrimination he observed from his windows at home. His father worked hard as a porter on the railroad and the young Marshall followed in his footsteps for a short time.
But after observing "White only" bathrooms and water-fountains, not being able to eat in certain restaurants or swim in certain swimming pools (like in Baltimore's Druid Hill Park) he knew the only way to combat these injustices was via the law where he once again saw discrimination in action. He applied to the University of Maryland Law School but was not admitted due to his race (hence the snub he gave the law school later) and instead was forced to commute to Howard University Law School in Washington, DC by train.
The play opens with Marshall speaking at Howard University Law School with a table, a podium, four leather chairs and brand-new flags of the United States and the District of Columbia. He sways slowly onto the stage with a sharp three-piece suit with a cane and wearing glasses. In back of him is a sign saying "Howard University Welcomes Thurgood Marshall". (Former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke would later become the law school's Dean.)
Marshall had an engaging personality and actor Wilson nails this part of the Justice. Marshall was a great story-teller according to former Sandra Day O'Connor who stated, "It was rare during our conference deliberations that he would not share an anecdote, a joke or a story." That basically sums up the Stevens' play...it is full of anecdotes about his past, about his first jobs including working for a Baltimore Jewish haberdasher, his meeting his first wife "Buster" while at Lincoln College, his non-acceptance at the University of Maryland Law school and his subsequent loss of his lawsuit against the law school, his leaving Baltimore for New York City and the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People (the NAACP), to his victory in the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education which struck down the doctrine of "separate but equal". Marshall insisted upon the country establishing the mantra etched in stone on the facade of the Supreme Court Building "Equal Justice Under Law". He reminisced while this huge undertaking which was taking place, he did not notice that his wife was on her last legs. She passed away shortly after his victory due to cancer.
It is truly an amazing story how this young Baltimore man of color, growing up in racist America, could achieve his important legacy.
We learn that it was President Kennedy who initially named Marshall to the U.S. District Court . But it was President Lyndon Baines Johnson who made him Solicitor General of the United States and later Supreme Court Justice, the first Black man to achieve this honor.(When Marshall left the Court, he was replaced by Clarence Thomas.)
One of the most moving aspects of the play is thanks to Projection Designer Zachary G. Borovay who displayed the many important decisions Marshall wrote. The audience spontaneously applauded. Other technical aspects of the play were done well: Harold F. Burgess II (Lighting Designer), Seth Gilbert (Costume Designer), Paige Hathaway (Scenic Designer), and Roc Lee (Sound Designer).
THURGOOD is a play that should be seen by all. What a great way to learn more about our history that textbooks just do not cover.
This was especially a meaningful play for me since I am an Administrative Judge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, also started under President Johnson.
To see another play about a Supreme Court Justice, don't forget about THE ORIGINALIST about Justice Antonin Scalia at Arena Stage, just 20 miles down the road from Olney. (See my review elsewhere on this site.)
There are post-show discussions following the Saturday matinees on July 29, August 12, and August 19.
For more about THURGOOD, check out the Olney blog at otc-dramaturgy-tumblr.com to learn more about Marshall's life, explore landmark Civil Rights cases, dive into the history of the Supreme Court, and more.
THURGOOD continues until August 20, 2017. For tickets, call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.
Next up at Olney is the Tony-winning musical IN THE HEIGHTS which runs Sept. 6 to Oct. 8.