There ought to be a law - all bio-dramas should be as vivid and entertaining as "Thurgood," which opened Wednesday at the Booth Theatre and stars Laurence Fishburne as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Solo shows can be dry and encyclopedic, or gooey valentines. Author George Stevens Jr., a filmmaker who wrote and directed the 1991 miniseries "Separate but Equal," nicely balances facts and affection for his subject.
The first-time playwright uses a straightforward structure: An elderly Marshall addresses students at Howard University 50 years after he graduated from the school in 1933.
Wearing a dark suit and an expression suggesting he's told these stories many times, Marshall recalls his slave ancestry - his "family of rebels."
The narrative runs a thread from his Baltimore childhood through college days with Langston Hughes to work as a civil rights attorney. Arguing the Brown vs. Board of Education case before the Supreme Court in 1954 is a poignant high point. Becoming the first black American on the high bench is handled nonchalantly, as Marshall slyly impersonates President Lyndon Johnson, who appointed him in 1967.
The focus of the play, which is set about a decade before his death in 1993, is Marshall's work; love, marriage and children take a back seat. It's not a flaw in the script, but a reflection of Marshall's priorities. As he himself puts it, "What kind of man has a wife dying of cancer and doesn't know it?"
The production plays out on Allen Moyer's efficient set, which is dominated by a huge, all-white Jasper Johns American flag that doubles as a projection screen.
Not every transition is graceful, but the 90-minute show moves smoothly enough as directed by Leonard Foglia, who staged a production two years ago at the Westport Country Playhouse with James Earl Jones.
Fishburne is magnetic as Marshall. The actor won a Tony in 1992 for "Two Trains Running" before doing movies like "What's Love Got to Do With It" and "The Matrix" trilogy, and he's a strong and natural presence onstage. He captures the justice's drive and everyday essence as well as his wry - if sometimes crass - wit.
"Thurgood" doesn't break a lot of new ground, but it is a worthwhile story rich in history, humanity and humor.
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