I’m writing this review on the day we observe the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when many US residents have the day off from work or school. Some participate in service projects. Others attend lectures by esteemed guests about race or justice and what exactly has and has not changed more than 50 years since King’s assassination. Perhaps a few watch documentaries or listen to one of Dr. King’s speeches. Almost everyone invokes MLK’s words and image in some way, whether contextually or historically accurate. So it’s also a good time to reflect on the Walnut’s current production of Thurgood, about another Black civil rights icon.
Marshall and MLK
Playwright George Stevens Jr.’s Thurgood is about Thurgood Marshall, the first Black US Supreme Court Justice. While MLK and Marshall were very different men, their lives and legacies are connected.
Both played a major role in advancing the liberties and rights of not only the so-called colored race, but all people. Both understood the importance and necessity of mastering persuasive written and spoken language, and used those skills in the courtroom, the streets, pulpits, and beyond. One worked to change the US system from within, while the other worked to dismantle that system. One’s life was cut tragically short, while the other lived a long and full life. I am intrigued by how these and other great historical Black figures and their legacies are portrayed and mythologized in arts and popular culture over time.
Stepping into the robe
Laurence Fishburne earned a Best Actor Tony nomination for Thurgood’s original Broadway run in 2008. Neither Sidney Poitier in the 1991 television miniseries Separate But Equal (also written by Stevens) or Chadwick Boseman in the 2017 film Marshall could transform like Fishburne did to fill that robe. Comparing the performances of Fishburne and the Walnut’s Johnnie Hobbs Jr. is undoubtedly unfair. Hobbs has a tremendous task in singlehandedly carrying this narrative for nearly 90 minutes of anecdotes that include excerpts of Supreme Court opinions, a Langston Hughes poem, and parts of the Constitution. The play packs so much that it runs the risk of feeling like a Wikipedia page read aloud.
At the performance I attended, one day after the opening, it appeared the weight of the material had gotten the better of Hobbs. Sometimes he sped through lines so fast I longed for subtitles; other times he forgot lines altogether, punctuated by several cues and prompts he got during the show, all of which were audible from my seat. However, in the most poignant moment of the play, Hobbs takes a seated, contemplative moment to slow down, sharing the experience of losing his first wife, “Buster,” to cancer. This is a much-needed reprieve from the seemingly nonstop name-dropping and constant credentialing that fills most of the show.
The audacity of survival
Though there was also some comic relief, many jokes did not quite land—unfortunate, because comedy is perhaps one of the best genres to hold space for the absurdity of the history of racism in this country, and the audacity of those who continue to survive and navigate within it.
Under the direction of Jerrell L. Henderson, this Thurgood evokes the Broadway production with its minimalist set and styling. Marshall wears a navy suit with a white button-down and red, white, and blue-striped tie (costumes by Levonne Lindsay), alluding to the American flag projected onto a gold-framed wall serving as the stage’s backdrop.
A large desk dominates the center of Roman Tatarowicz’s set, with a lectern, coat rack, and chair with a side table stage right. The sole setting of the play is Howard University in Washington, DC, where Marshall has returned to his alma mater to share his life story. As the play reveals, Howard, supposedly once known as “the Dummy’s Retreat,” is now seen as one of the nation’s premier Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU).
A false assumption?
As a fellow HBCU graduate, I looked around the audience to search for any other face of color. (Alas, when the lights came up, I spotted only three.) So there’s an inherent false assumption here within the performance’s basic premise: that Marshall is speaking somewhat amongst friends intracommunally and, perhaps more specifically, intraracially. Or at least how Stevens, the white and presumably wealthy playwright (he is also a producer, director, and founder of the American Film Institute), imagined Marshall would speak to a predominantly Black and college-educated audience.
This may explain some of the general disconnect I sensed in audience engagement and participation. For example, Thurgood viewers must be able to contend with and distinguish among the frequent and nuanced uses of words like "negro." The line “You know how we negroes claim to have a sixth sense? We can detect whether or not a white person is for us,” becomes either a great inside joke, a perpetuation of a “magical negro” narrative, or a completely perplexing statement.
Inherent in many communities of color is the way that we immerse ourselves and interact with any and all stimuli or environments. This shows up in the ways we may yell at the screen in movies, or laugh uproariously at seemingly mundane occurrences, or call-and-respond when prompted. In a real Howard auditorium, these are the behaviors I would have expected to witness. By stark contrast, within the intimate space of the Independence Studio, the absence of audience reaction, recognition, and response was jarring.
Who are our heroes?
While I understand the inclination to make Black historical figures like Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr. the protagonists of works of art, they often end up as supportive characters in their own narratives. Their existence is only in service to some greater ideal or accomplishment. The recognition of their greatness is not because of who they are, but only because of what they have done.
There are moments in Thurgood that push past merely historicizing and into humanizing the legend of Marshall, but it mostly falls short of adding real nuance, depth, and connection to my understanding of who he was. In cases like this I leave with more questions than conclusions. What is our collective responsibility in sharing the stories of historical figures like Marshall? Does it matter for whom these narratives are written or with whom they will be shared? Is it more important that these stories are shared at all? Or are specificity and nuance imperative components to the retelling? Should we spend more energy on exemplifying how our heroes are truly exceptional, or on proving how they are wholly human?
What, When, Where
Thurgood. By George Stevens Jr. Directed by Jerrell L. Henderson. Through February 9, 2020 at the Walnut’s Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut St., Philadelphia. (215) 574-3550 or walnutstreettheatre.org.
Walnut Street Theatre is an ADA-compliant venue. Patrons wishing to purchase wheelchair seating should call (215) 574-3550, ext. 6, rather than ordering online.