Who is your favorite Supreme Court justice over the years? Well, if you think marginalized citizens—women, Blacks, LGBTQ folks, prisoners, and other minorities—need some help to realize full equality “under the law,” you might think Thurgood Marshall would be a good choice.
That conclusion is well supported in the play Thurgood, now at the Cleveland Play House. Written by George Stevens, Jr. and performed with warmth and gusto by solo actor Lester Purry, the play walks a chronological path from Marshall’s younger days in Baltimore to his eventual nomination and confirmation as the first Black Supreme Court justice in 1967.
While the script wanders occasionally into the weeds of some of the cases Marshall dealt with on the way up, Stevens includes enough of Marshall’s personal, extracurricular interests (cocktails and women among them) to keep the show from being a dutiful Wikipedia entry.
The conceit of the play is that the elderly Marshall is addressing young law students in the auditorium at Howard University School of Law, where he graduated first in his class. After entering the stage walking slowly and uncertainly, Purry soon dispenses with his cane as he embodies the younger Thurgood. strutting around a long conference table that is the main set design, along with a large projection of the U.S. Constitution on the back wall.
Several times during the two-act production, Marshall refers to advice he received from his mentor Charles Hughes who told Thurgood, “The law is a weapon” that could be used to fight for civil rights. And those were the seeds that led to many progressive decisions.
They included the unanimous ruling in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that abolished the concept of “separate but equal” in public schools. Purry does a nice job capturing the persona of old John W. Davis, the opposition’s lawyer, as he presents his reasoning in a crackly southern drawl.
At times, the playwright works in some old jokes that may or may not have been actual quotes from the time, but they are amusing. Particularly the one about why six-foot, two-inch Thurgood had to put up with too-short pants when he worked as a waiter early on.
Thurgood the play does a good job of laying out the trajectory of this remarkable man’s career, but it leaves one wanting more. Particularly these days, when the current Supreme Court has pointed the “weapon of the law” at many vulnerable targets including women, denying them bodily autonomy which many consider at least one of our bedrock civil rights.
Of course, it’s not the job of a play written almost 20 years ago to grapple with today’s Supreme Court machinations, even though it does cast a passing, side-eye glance at Clarence Thomas. the long-serving Black jurist who seems intent on dismantling much of what Marshall achieved.
But for those who have forgotten Marshall’s contributions to the law. this Thurgood serves as an informative, entertaining and slightly wistful reminder.
Through October 1 at Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., clevelandplayhouse.com, 216-241-6000.