Thurgood at People’s Light

            Thurgood Marshall was the 76th associate justice appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States after the Court was created by the Constitution over 175 years before. He was also, the first African-American to serve there. His story of fighting to end racism, beginning with growing up in segregated Baltimore, Maryland, is the subject of this one-man play at People’s Light. It is a very good play about an extraordinary man.

            It begins with the elderly Marshall, limping with a cane, directly addressing us, the audience of the Howard University Law School, and telling of his giving 50 years to the law. But it also a history of racism in the Unites States.

We learn that he was born in 1908, the year that Jack Johnson became the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world. Sadly, his victory led to race riots and lynchings over the next year. The following year, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded.

            Then, Marshall dispenses with the cane, stands up straight, and takes us through the racism he experienced. After graduating from the Colored High and Training School, he attended Lincoln College where one of his classmates was the poet, Langston Hughes. Upon graduating, he sought to attend the University of Maryland Law School, but was rejected because he was a Negro. It was 1930. The infamous Supreme Court 1896 decision in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case, which declared “separate but equal”- a legal separation of the races- to be the law of the land. It would remain so for another 24 years.

            Marshall attended Howard University to gain his law degree, and then spent the rest of his life fighting in the courts and overturning racist law after law. Playwright George Stevens, Jr. takes us through many of these cases. It is most interesting but at times a bit overwhelming, as we often feel we are not watching a play but listening to a lecture. Still, it is fascinating as we learn so much about what preceded the 1954 landmark case, Brown vs Board of Education.  I discovered it was actually argued twice, first in 1952, then again, after the Chief Justice of the Court died and was replaced by Earl Warren.

            Ironically, the last half hour, which is about Marshall’s appointment to the Court of Appeals by John F. Kennedy, his selection by Lyndon Johnson to be Solicitor General and then to the United States Supreme Court in 1967, seemed like an afterthought. I had been more interested in the information in the first hour and about Marshall’s family, about his real name, Thoroughgood and about his early struggles.

            The play was filled with information and I always enjoy learning when I see a play with historical significance. But it was presented without a sense of drama. They told us things that I would have preferred they showed me with more interaction between Marshall and the people he was talking to or with. I would have liked to see better the photos that were occasionally flashed on walls, but were distorted by the walls of the set. And since the play was not in a smaller, more intimate theater space, I would have appreciated if they’d miked Brian Marable, who gives a solid performance as Thurgood Marshall.

            Reviewing a play is often complicated. I loved so much about the play, but as a theater critic, I wanted a little more theater. “Thurgood” at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malverne, PA 19355, 610-644-3500,   Thru March 19, 2023

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