NEWSDAY THURGOOD REVIEW
'Thurgood,' starring Laurence Fishburne
by Linda Winer
In "Thurgood," Laurence Fishburne tells the life story of the first black Supreme Court justice, in more-or-less Thurgood Marshall's own folksy words.
If this sounds less like a drama than an educational TV special for Black History Month, you grasp the major limitations and the good intentions in the solo biography that opened Wednesday night at the Booth Theatre.
Fishburne, always a welcome onstage force, dotters out on a cane, then grows more youthful as Marshall recollects the facts and lessons of his journey. He wears a serious suit, a rep tie and a wicked smile.
He talks amiably at us, apparently delivering a speech to the Howard University Law School in a formal room with a long, dark-wood table and a stucco backdrop of the flag.
"The law is a weapon," he says, for the first of what feels like too many times.
In 1991, George Stevens Jr., wrote and directed the miniseries "Separate but Equal," about the milestone school-desegregation case that Marshall tried for the NAACP. For this play, first produced starring James Earl Jones at Connecticut's Westport Country Playhouse in 2006, Stevens culled through oral histories, court documents and interviews with friends and colleagues.
Given his credentials and those of director Leonard Foglia ("Master Class"), we keep hoping for something more theatrical and original than this standard-issue, broad-stroke, one-man bio.
Fishburne - his hooded eyes promising untold secrets - paces from one side of the stage to the other. He takes off his suit coat. He puts on his suit coat. He rolls up his sleeves. He rolls them down.
He also stumbled over the lines a few times at Friday's preview. Considering the amount of repetition in the storytelling, who could blame him?
Marshall recounts stories about relatives with amusing names (Uncle Fearless) and slave horrors. He impresses upon us how far he has come, from "colored high" to Howard, when the Washington, D.C., university was an old three-story brownstone with no heat. He winks about "booze and women," but teaches about almost getting lynched while changing history in the Deep South. Projections of old photos and Supreme Court columns help us imagine.
The evening ends with Marshall repeating a moving quote from his former schoolmate, Langston Hughes. Marshall was a remarkable man. He appears to have been less eloquent a writer than a social force.