May 1, 2008 -- WE owe a debt to Laurence Fishburne and playwright George Stevens Jr. for bringing a great man to life in "Thurgood," and putting him vividly, if too exhaustively, on the stage of the Booth Theatre.
History is really little more than a series of biographies, carefully selected and woven together - but a lot of the details get swept under history's rug.
I thought I knew quite a bit about Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first black judge to be appointed to the Supreme Court. I was wrong.
In fact, President Johnson's epoch-making appointment in June of 1967, plus a few misty details, was actually all I did know about a man whose life story helped change history.
Now, through Stevens' one-man play and Fishburne's carefully layered, wholly convincing performance, I discovered a great deal more about that solitary, benignly wise figure who featured at the time in dozens of photographs of the nation's Supreme Court.
When Johnson, a tireless campaigner for civil rights, appointed Marshall to the nation's highest court, he declared it "the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man and the right place." Marshall was the 96th appointee, and the first black, since the court's creation in 1789.
The play is set toward the end of Marshall's life, when he delivers a speech at his alma mater, Howard University, something like a commencement address, but less overtly inspirational and a good deal more friendly.
As written by Stevens and played with a twinkling, self-deprecating good nature by Fishburne, Marshall - with his armory of jokes and anecdotes - must have been one helluva good after-dinner speaker.
Most of what he has to tell is admirable yet predictable - a hardscrabble childhood, parental sacrifice, a fierce unyielding ambition, a splendid intellect and a natural legal mind, all of it essential for the journey from the back streets of Baltimore to Washington's corridors of power.
The problem of the evening - an intermissionless 100 minutes - is that, while it's undoubtedly a triumph for Fishburne, there is only one character, one tone, and neither tension nor climax. Stevens comes from the world of movies, but he doesn't seem to know much about editing.
Quite simply, a little less might have meant a lot more.
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