Westport Country Playhouse, Westport
Connecticut theatergoers had eagerly awaited the arrival of James Earl Jones in “Thurgood.” What could be more promising than the portrayal of a great black jurist by a great black actor—both Americans, both ground-breakers! Jones, in a one-man show, would take on the role of Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice to sit on our Supreme Court. The combination on stage had to be dynamite.
Alas, it is not. As it turns out, Jones gives a folksy, pleasant monologue, but nothing which lifts the viewer to the anticipated heights. The play itself, written by George Stevens, Jr., is equally ordinary. Having seen many solo shows, an increasingly popular genre today, we know how superb such performances can be—and how dramatically they can be written.
What ultimately rescues the show is the subject itself, although one might do better to read a straightforward biography of Thurgood Marshall. This grandson of a slave had a remarkable career. Each step along the way he fought racial discrimination, not only in his own behalf, but for the entire race. His parents were crucial in providing an excellent start—a schoolteacher mother, a father who examined and debated every issue.
Marshall determined that law was the way to fight injustices, and applied to the University of Maryland Law School in 1930. Turned down because of his color, he went on to Howard University Law School, firmer than ever in his goals. At Howard he was influenced by Charles Hamilton Houston, an inspired teacher who urged his students to apply the tenets of the Constitution to all Americans. Marshall would follow Houston to New York and to the NAACP, where he would become Chief Counsel. In those years he would rack up an impressive record of civil rights victories, including the landmark Brown versus the Board of Education in 1954. Later he would be appointed Solicitor General by President Lyndon Johnson before becoming a Supreme Court Justice in 1967.
What have Jones and Stevens (and director Foglia) done with this moving story? Stevens gives a matter-of-fact treatment to the material, a style better suited to an encyclopedia or a “Who’s Who” compendium. Occasionally, an ineffective joke is tucked into the story. As to the great Jones, whose past victories have included “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” and “The Great White Hope,” this performance is unworthy of his past achievements. Jones ambles through the material, often mumbling and ripping through his lines. On this particular press night, Jones was struggling with a cold, we presume, and the frequent resort to his handkerchief was a further detraction.
Nonetheless, at the close, the audience as one rose to cheer and applaud. One would like to think that this standing ovation was really honoring, not the show, but the subject itself, the extraordinary Thurgood Marshall.
-- Irene Backalenick
May 11, 2006