Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Of course, there was much more to the man–many more achievements and contributions to history, and much more to his personal life's journey. Penumbra Theatre helps fill in many of those details with a sterling production of Thurgood, a one-man play by George Stevens Jr., describing Marshall's path from an ordinary childhood in Baltimore to an undeniable place in history. At the same time, the play is an homage to the judicial process as it is meant to be–unchained to political, partisan agendas and aiming for outcomes in the best interest of our nation and its people within the framework of our founding document.
The play is in no paper-thin recitation of a man's biography. Thurgood premiered at Westport Country Playhouse in 2006 with James Earl Jones as the great judge, and Laurence Fishburne earned a Tony Award nomination as the star of the 2008 Broadway mounting. At Penumbra, esteemed actor Lester Purry brings Marshall to life, after having played the role in Portland, Oregon, and Rochester, New York. The part fits Purry like a second skin, drawing in the audience as welcome guests being treated to a great man opening up his life. He conveys warmth and a hopeful countenance, along with an impatience for suffering fools. With the assured direction of Penumbra's founder and artistic director emeritus Lou Bellamy, Thurgood informs, inspires and entertains.
The audience learns about the machinations beneath the surface, the lesser-known court cases (both wins and losses) that led up to the Brown v. Board of Education's thundering strike for civil rights in America, and the momentum that took Thurgood Marshall from his childhood, as the son of a porter on the B&O Railroad and a school teacher who attended segregated all-Black schools, to a seat on the Supreme Court. The audience is inspired by the truth that a small number of determined–and immensely intelligent–individuals can indeed make a difference. The audience is entertained by the wit and mischievous nature of Marshall, our storyteller, relishing having us all to himself as he regales us with his fondly remembered past, played by an actor of formidable talent.
The stage is set (nicely, by Vicki Smith) with a long, sturdy table of polished wood, one that would be right at home in a law library. A black judge's robe hangs on a coat hook stage right, an assurance that we will indeed see Thurgood rise to the heights of the Supreme Court before our time together is through. The entire rear wall is covered with the first page of the United States Constitution in scripted handwriting, with the first three words, "We the people," standing out in large letters. This forms the backdrop upon which slides and video images are projected (well curated from a host of archival sources by Rasean Davonté Johnson)–not replacing the constitution's text, but set right on top of it, showing us the foundation that rests beneath the struggle for equality among the peoples of our nation. Justin Ellington's apt sound design adds to the immersive effect.
Purry enters in silhouette, stooped and supported by a cane, before he settles in and the lights come up to reveal a man with a twinkle in his eye who, in spite of his age and apparent frailty, brims with life. The play is framed as a talk an aging Marshall gives to students at his alma matter, Howard University Law School, the historically Black university he attended after being rebuffed by the University of Maryland, which did not then admit "Negro" students.
In the course of two full acts, playwright Stevens gives more attention to Marshall's education and the steps in his career than his personal life, including his founding in 1940 of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. There he served as first director, heading up a series of court cases that challenged the long-standing doctrine of "separate but equal," applied to virtually all spheres of life including education. His case arguments, whether they prevailed or not, were ingenious and compelling. Still, Stevens allows time for Marshall to venture into his two marriages, family life, and enjoyments, painting a portrait of a man who lived life fully.
Whether one agrees with the positions Thurgood Marshall took or not, the man's brilliant legal mind, persistence in the face of damning odds, and great courage warrant our admiration. Stevens' play, in Bellamy's nurturing hand, and made flesh by Purry, brings Marshall back to grace us with his insights and anecdotes for two hours that pass in no time at all. Anyone sharing in that time would need to make a concerted effort not to be ennobled by the experience.
Thurgood runs through April 10, 2022 at Penumbra Theatre, 270 North Kent Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets are $15.00 - $40.00. For tickets and information, please call 651-224-3180 or visit www.penumbratheatre.org.
Playwright: George Stevens Jr.; Director: Lou Bellamy; Scenic and Prop Design: Vicki Smith; Costume Design: Casey McNamara; Lighting Design: Don Darnutzer; Sound Design: Justin Ellington; Projection Design: Rasean Davonté Johnson; Technical Director: Zeb Hults; Stage Manager: Mary K. Winchell.
Cast: Lester Purry (Thurgood Marshall).