Thurgood Marshall is a man that helped to change history. His personal experiences led him to study law and use that ‘law as a weapon’ to fight against bigotry and prejudices. Not only responsible for fighting against discrimination and civil rights, His Honor Thurgood Marshall was the first African-American to be nominated for and sit on the United States Supreme Court. The one-man show, Thurgood, is a bio-drama recalling the actions of one of the most influential legal minds of modern history.
Thurgood Marshall was born in Baltimore, Maryland on July 02, 1908. He was descended from slaves on both sides of his family, and it was a source of strength he drew upon for most of his life. After graduating from Lincoln University with honors (among fellow classmates such as Langston Hughes, and Cab Calloway), Thurgood was denied entry to the University of Maryland School of Law due to the color of his skin. After graduation from Howard University School of Law, Thurgood set out to change the way the law was interpreted. Tired of the unfairness resulting from Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the infamous “Separate But Equal” law upholding racial segregation, Thurgood set his goals on achieving equality for all people in the United States. Starting a lifelong bond with the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), Thurgood worked on several landmark cases. These are only a small number of them:
- Murray v. Pearson (1936) – making it illegal for a school to remain segregated in Maryland
- Chambers v. Florida (1940 – a defendant that confesses under police pressure (or brutality) is a direct violation of the Due Process clause
- Smith v Allwright (1944) – desegregating voting rights
- Sweatt v. Painter (1950) – THE case that proved Separate is NOT Equal causing a reversal in Plessy v. Ferguson
It was in later years that President John Kennedy appointed Thurgood to the United States Court of Appeals in 1961. After four more years President Lyndon Johnson would appoint Thurgood to be the first African-American appointed to be the United States Solicitor General. Two years later in 1967, President Johnson would again make history by appointing Thurgood Marshall to being the first African-American on the United States Supreme Court.
Thurgood Marshall would sit on the Supreme Court bench for more than 20 years adding his voice and wisdom on many cases for civil rights and criminal procedure.
Eric Clausell is the man portraying Thurgood Marshall on stage. He takes to the role with ease, allowing only the slightest of nerves to show at the great endeavor of such a role. It is without a doubt not easy to be the only person on a stage, and he often looked to the audience for energy and support. Mr. Clausell doesn’t try to impersonate the man; instead he sets out to embrace the body language and diction styles that helped get Thurgood Marshall a seat on the Supreme Court, making the character come to life.
The play is good. Even if one has limited (or none at all) knowledge of law or history of the law in the United States, the play takes the time to explain what is needed. It is more than a dry ranting history lesson of African-American oppression, and is easy to follow (become enraged by) and even celebrate the outcomes of such landmark legal cases earning him the unofficial name of “Mr. Civil Rights.” As the main character shares with confused reality, “I thought that because the courts ruled in favor [of equality] that it would happen immediately. I was wrong.”
Thurgood is as an important play today as it was when it first was produced in 2006. While the attack on civil rights may not be as racially blatant as it was in mid-20th Century, the play serves as an important reminder of what can happen if bigotry and prejudices begin, once again, to take root in our society.
Tacoma’s Broadway Center for the Performing Arts is an easy drive from Seattle. With good restaurants around the area, an evening out should not be discredited strictly because of a short distance by car. Especially since parking is not difficult to find in the area. The play runs almost two hours, without intermission, and held a captive audience for every minute.
Thurgood is written by George Stevens, Jr., founder of the American Film Institute and the creator of the AFI Life Achievement Award. The play opened on Broadway on April 12, 2008, running for over 125 performances. The play starred Laurence Fishburne in the title role, earning him the 2008 Tony Award nomination for Best Actor in a play. In 2011 HBO presented a film version of the play (once again starring Laurence Fishburne). In 2017 the film “Thurgood” (different from the play by the same name) was released starring Chadwick Boseman, and focused on the 1941 case of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell – a case where an African-American chauffer was accused of raping his female white employer. Mr. George Stevens, Jr., author of Thurgood the play, also produced the Academy-Award winning documentary, “Nine From Little Rock”, a film about African-American students being admitted to an all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas.