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Thurgood Marshall is an important American historical figure: the civil rights attorney who successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court and thereby brought down racial segregation in public schools, as well as the first African-American on the Supreme Court. Laurence Fishburne is one of America’s foremost African-American actors (he counts August Wilson’s Fences and Two Trains Running among his stage credits). And we as a nation need to be reminded of what has been achieved every 25 years or so. Small wonder, then, that Fishburne’s one-man performance as Thurgood has earned him a Tony nomination for best performance and the Drama Desk Award for outstanding solo performance.
Playwright George Stevens places Marshall in an auditorium lecture hall at the Howard University and establishes the premise that the audience is his student class. For the most part, the convention works well. Under the direction of Leonard Foglia, Jr., the evening is effective, dynamic and tremendously exciting. Projections and sound effects help break up the one-level space and give Fishburne something to play off of beside the occasional heckler in the audience. It’s remarkable to watch one actor control an audience for 90 minutes without intermission.
Indeed, if there’s a problem with Thurgood, it concerns the audience and Fishburne’s reaction to it, because lecture audiences and theatergoers are different animals. Audiences arrive late, leave early and talk out of turn. Fishburne handles these distractions well and knows how to control his crowd. But his improvised reactions to the crowd at times become comically ironic and theatrical, even to the point of compromising the dignity of his character. At points I found myself wondering if Fishburne, the actor, was deliberately baiting the audience. At other times, I found that I just didn’t like the Thurgood Marshall that Fishburne was portraying and wondered how accurate his characterization actually was.
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