Olney Theatre Center’s black box theatre has been configured into a 150-seat college lecture hall with a sign on the rear of the stage wall reading, “Howard University Welcomes Thurgood Marshall.” In front of that sign stands a dark wooden table with a lectern on top, four leather chairs around it, and behind the table are the American and the District of Columbia flags.
In comes a hobbling graying, bespectacled gent in a three-piece suit using a cane. That man is Baltimore-born Thurgood Marshall, the first ever African-American Justice to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Now retired, he is returning to Howard University where he had received his law degree to give a speech.
Marshall actually died in 1993 at the age of 84, but his life’s stories included in that speech at Howard are conveyed in a scintillating and compelling one-man play, “Thurgood,” being presented at Olney’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab.
Mr. Wilson’s portrayal of Thurgood Marshall is spot-on and convincing.
“Thurgood” opened on Broadway in 2008 and earned a Tony Award for its star Laurence Fishburne. Veteran actor Brian Anthony Wilson with a good number of film and TV roles under his belt turns in a tour-de-force performance as Thurgood Marshall in a compact 90-minute play at Olney.
The absorbing script by George Stevens, Jr., which denotes historical facts, anecdotes, verbatim quotes from Marshall, emotional moments, and well-placed humor derived from Marshall’s mischievous sense of humor, makes the play feel like it’s over much too quickly.
Marshall soon sheds his cane and transforms into a more youthful persona. Under Emmy Award winner Walter Dallas’ impeccable direction, he proceeds to effectively relate in chronological sequence his boyhood including why he changed his name from Thoroughgood to Thurgood.
Marshall strolls about the stage and other times he’s sitting depending on the topic. He takes an occasional sip of water as any speech presenter would. He is aided by images projected on the rear wall thereby enhancing his speech.
Marshall discusses his colorful family including his alcoholic father, his education, his attempt to be admitted to the University of Maryland Law School only to find out it did not allow blacks, his work as a lawyer fighting to end segregation and Jim Crow laws, his married life, his appointment by President John F. Kennedy to the U.S. Court of Appeals, his appointment by President Lyndon B. Johnson as U.S. Solicitor General and ultimately President Johnson’s appointment of Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court.
He brings us back to an era where the struggle for civil rights got its footing. The “N” word is commonly used. Lynchings are unflinchingly discussed.
The 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision laid the groundwork for the federal “separate but equal” concept for public facilities as they pertain to black and white citizens. It was this culture of segregation and discrimination that led Marshall to seek a career in law not only to make money as he unabashedly admitted, but to help right those wrongs.
As chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Marshall won cases and lost others. However, it was his 1954 win in Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court that ended the policy of separate schools for white and black children where he made his mark.
Standing at the lectern and simulating his legal argument before the Supreme Court, one can easily get goose bumps. When the decision was handed down, the audience broke out into applause.
His record of winning 29 of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme court caught the attention of presidents, which led to his ultimate appointment to the highest court in the land.
Mr. Wilson’s portrayal of Thurgood Marshall is spot-on and convincing. The humorous anecdotes as well as the emotional dramatic episodes are well-delivered. All told, Mr. Wilson’s performance was deserving of the enthusiastic standing ovation he received at the conclusion of this reviewed performance.
Paige Hathaway’s set including the projected images presents the appropriate background for Mr. Wilson and his movement around the stage.
Harold F. Burgess II designed the lighting to effectively coincide with the dramatic moments as did Roc Lee’s sound design, which provided sound effects at those very moments.
Towards the end of the play, Marshall delivers a line from a Langston Hughes poem, “Oh, let America be America again.” Immediately, it conjures up thoughts of the similarly worded campaign slogan used repeatedly by our current president.
It also reminds us how the president created a commission to investigate non-existing voter fraud rather than examining the prevalent attempts at voter suppression that is intended to impact African-Americans and other minorities.
I mused, what would Thurgood Marshall say about that? Come see this magnificent play and performance and imagine the answer to that question.
Running Time: One hour and 30 minutes with an intermission.
Advisory: “Thurgood” contains some profanity and adult situations and is not recommended for children under age 13.
“Thurgood” runs through August 20 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 301-924-2654 or visiting online.