WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE?
by John Topping
published May 7, 2008
now playing on Broadway at the Booth Theater
through July 20
The new play Thurgood, by George Stevens, Jr., is likely everything you would expect it
to be, providing that you are expecting it to be a good, uplifting, educational evening in the theater. The question is whether the elements are appealing enough to you to part with $96.50.
Thurgood is a one man show starring Laurence Fishburne as
Thurgood Marshall, the first African American man to be made a Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Ostensibly we, the audience, are students being lectured by him in the auditorium of his alma mater, Howard
University, as he tells us his life story from childhood to college to breaking the barriers of racial injustice as one of the country’s first
black lawyers and finally to his appointment on the Supreme Court.
Laurence Fishburne embodies the role, looking remarkably like the real Thurgood Marshall, and – at least from row O – disappears
into his character. As the play moves along, it’s hard not to think of the current rift
between Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright, both of whom would probably like the show immensely.
Race continues to be an issue in this country, and while those two men have different ideas of how to address it, they would both be
reminded that they owe a large debt for the opportunities to express themselves to Thurgood (if I may be so informal), who pioneered
concrete progress in the transition from a seemingly hopeless situation to – dare I say it? – one filled with the hope for positive
change. It's also a potent reminder of the vision that one must maintain in order to achieve change in the face of seemingly
It’s hard to say whether it’s the success of the play itself or the success of the changes that
Marshall pioneered that does this to us, but watching him speak, the notion of injustice based on the color of skin reaches the height of
absurdity. Some of these injustices are familiar, such as Jim Crow laws separating whites from
“coloreds” in public spaces (it actually comes off as quaint to hear him use the word “colored” in a time before it was politically
incorrect). Other injustices might be new to some, such as the fact that, while Asians and Hispanics
also experienced racism, they nonetheless had more equal rights and were higher on the social ladder while coloreds were deliberately kept
as close to slavery as the times could muster. But it will probably be shocking to most to learn
that the Democratic Party itself tried to keep blacks out of the political party by asserting that it was a private membership club.
After taking to heart his father’s advice to let anyone who calls him “nigger” know that they now “have some business” with him,
one can imagine some who will take issue with his integrity as he relates the story of the big exception when he allowed a white man to
call him “nigger” and lord an attitude of superiority over him. However, it reminds us that he
is human and fallible – something that can easily get lost in the portrayal of great men – and of the climate of the times he lived, when
the road to justice had to be navigated around the reality of hardcore racism.
A large semi-sculptural white painting of the American flag in the background doubles as a screen for slide
projections. In that the play both reminds us of both how far we’ve come and how far we have
yet to go with true racial equality and justice, perhaps it's a subliminal message that the embossed flag, literally whitewashed, represents
a working blueprint of equality that doesn’t yet fully include all of our nation’s people of all colors.
It’s too bad that Thurgood is not giving special performances for schools.
Although that destiny is probably inevitable for such a play as this, kids could feel, in the hands of the wrong actor, more lectured-to
than absorbed by a vibrant lecture. It would certainly make an impression and be an
inspiration with lasting impact for many children, few of whom can afford the luxury of a Broadway outing, especially in the current
The play suffers a bit toward the end when, as if to pad the short evening, once his story from humble beginnings to great heights
has been thoroughly told, Thurgood offers random thoughts and opinions about laws and issues of his time that still resonate
today. On the other hand, riding the conceit that we’re in a college auditorium, it’s
justifiable to imagine that he is fielding questions in a post-lecture Q&A session. If you
are still reading this review and find the subject interesting, then you might qualify to be a satisfied audience member. Does that mean Thurgood is a great play?
No. Is it a worthwhile evening in the theater?
johntopping @ stageandcinema.com