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Thanks to an academic mother focused on African American history and my own commitment to my educational development, as a child, I was obsessed with Thurgood Marshall’s seminal role in Brown v. Board of Education. Thurgood, the one-man show now starring Brian Marable in a production at People’s Light, went above my expectations.
Part biographical recreation, part history lesson, and part law lecture, the play covers Marshall’s childhood and middle-class family upbringing, a smattering of key cases, and the progression of civil rights in American history, with verbiage reminding us: if you want to understand Marshall’s story, you must understand his history and that of his culture.
Initially set in a law conference room (scenic designer Tony Cisek), here with wood panels that cleverly serve as a screen for Patrick W. Lord’s projection design, the play touches on the judge’s ancestor, Thorny Good Marshall, his overly patient first wife Vivian Burey, and his attempted lynching. We also experience the historic court cases Murray v. Pearson, Smith v. Allwright, and, of course, Brown v. Board of Education (plaintiffs Marshall represented before he became the Supreme Court’s first Black justice). Throughout, the play covertly iterates his mantra: “the law is a weapon if you know how to use it.”
In director Steve H. Broadnax III’s hands, the original script remains entertaining, lighthearted, and educational, lightly balancing racial denigration with humor. Marable wears Thurgood Marshall’s skin like a well-worn suit, expertly showcasing Marshall’s folksy, charismatic, aw-shucks persona with organic audience interaction. Marable’s movement and Broadnax’s direction fill the stage, balancing humor with drama, while maintaining an intimate feel.
Although white American playwright George Stevens Jr. did an excellent job acknowledging the hurtful historical reverberations within the n-word, he adds a final joke about Marshall imagining a future where white people remain in power and still repeatedly call Black people by that phrase, yet Black people don’t know what it means. I noticed the mostly white audience at People’s Light laughed, but none of the Black people seated near me did so. It felt distasteful, especially contrasted with a direct excerpt of Thurgood Marshall’s retirement speech, looking to the future.
My future doesn’t include a place where I overlook racial denigration. My future is a place where it doesn’t occur to anyone to call me by those names. Unfortunately, the blatant racist aggression of the past continues within the more subtle, passive-aggressive, sometimes unconscious bias of today. The play echoes systemic segregation committed today and yesterday.
The Separate Car Act of 1890 was initially marketed “to promote the comfort of passengers on railway trains.” Black people were rejected from the University of Maryland because of “state policy.” General MacArthur claimed there were no qualified Black soldiers to fill officer or musician positions. Sound familiar? We need Thurgood Marshall more than ever, and Thurgood is an informative performance exploring “equal justice under the law.”
What, When, Where
Thurgood. By George Stevens Jr., directed by Steve H. Broadnax III. $47-$52. Through March 19, 2023, at People’s Light’s Leonard C. Haas Stage, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern. (610) 644-3500 or peopleslight.org.
Masks are required at matinees of Thurgood; masks are recommended, but not required at other performances.
People’s Light is a wheelchair-accessible campus. There will be a Relaxed Performance with ASL interpretation and audio description (available upon request) of Thurgood on Sunday, March 12, at 2pm. There will open-captioned performances March 14 through 19, and Smart Caption glasses are available March 9 through 19. For more info, visit People’s Light’s accessibility page.
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