Johnny Lee Davenport as Thurgood Marshall (by Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)
by Mike Hoban
Thurgood – Written by George Stevens, Jr.; Directed by Benny Sato Ambush; Scenic Design by Ryan Bates; Lighting Design by Bridget K. Doyle; Composer & Sound Designer, Dewey Dellay. Presented by New Repertory Theatre at the Black Box Theater at the Mosesian Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown through February 5th.
When New Rep artistic director Jim Petosa and managing director Harriet Sheets were formulating their theme for their 2016-2017 season “What’s Past is Prologue”, they could not have possibly known how disturbingly prescient that idea would be. Although I did not see the season’s opener “Regular Singing” (about a family coming together to celebrate the life of an aging relative on the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination), the storylines of the past three productions have served to remind us that if we’re not careful, past could indeed become prologue.
New Rep followed up “Regular Singing” with “Good”, about a seemingly humane literary professor who slowly and unwittingly falls under the sway of the Nazis (as does the rest of the country) – and then we elect a demagogue; and “Fiddler on the Roof”, which despite its brilliant and touching score, has the forceful displacement of the Jews by the Tsar looming ominously in the background – and now we’ve got a potential Muslim “registry” on the way. Which leads us to “Thurgood”, the portrait of Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice, whose contributions to creating a racially just society through the legal system could be undone with the confirmation of the current nominee as Attorney General – who seems to be opposed in principle to everything Marshall and the civil rights movement fought for.
But with “Thurgood”, the low level of despair of the seeming powerlessness over our current circumstances is eclipsed by the power of the material and the performance of the always riveting Johnny Lee Davenport – who gives us a fully human portrayal of a man who helped to rectify centuries of racial injustice. Part history lecture, part one man show, “Thurgood” is a powerful docudrama of a man whose pivotal role in civil rights movement is often overlooked – despite his arguing and winning the landmark desegregation case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
The performance opens with an aged Marshall ambling onto the spare but effective set (with only a leather office chair, end table and small desk, and a backdrop of photos of significant people from his life), briefcase in one hand, cane in the other. As he takes off his hat and coat, he sheds years and begins regaling the audience as a younger version of himself with the poignant tales of his life. He begins with his early childhood (including a cute story of how his first name was actually a shortening of his given name ‘Thoroughgood’ which he said had too many letters to write out as a child), and progresses into his formative years.
His father had instilled in him early on that if another man were to call him “nigger”, he was to punch him out – which he did in his first real job as a stock clerk in a hat shop. Following another degrading incident, he asks himself the question that would shape his views as he helped dismantle the “separate but equal” doctrine of an 1896 Supreme Court ruling during his tenure as the Chief Counsel for the NAACP, “Was I going to go through life being humbled because of the color of my skin?”
The play focuses more on the professional accomplishments of Marshall, and less on his personal life (although the script makes multiple references to a possible fondness for the booze and hints at a womanizing problem), but that professional life is pretty damn interesting and Davenport is a masterful storyteller, so it matters little. The script also lacks a strong dramatic arc and proceeds in a methodicall chronological order, but again, the vignettes and anecdotes are so compelling that it all works.
When a staff member told me that the show runs nearly two hours without an intermission, I groaned internally, but found that time moved reasonably quickly (and will probably be shortened even more as Davenport becomes more comfortable with the reams of dialogue in subsequent performances). “Thurgood” is both very good theater and really important history – one which we can only hope does not repeat itself. See it. For more info, go to: http://www.newrep.org/productions/thurgood/