PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Thurgood — Accent on the Good

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01 May 2008

Laurence Fishburne, George Stevens Jr. and Leonard Foglia.
Laurence Fishburne, George Stevens Jr. and Leonard Foglia.
Aubrey Reuben
Thurgood, which bowed April 30 at the Booth, is the feel-good play of the season — primarily because of the lasting good works of the man it so eloquently lionizes.

What Annie Sullivan did for Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, Thurgood Marshall did for the nation — brought us kicking and screaming into the light, forever altering the course of human history in these United States. One man did this, and the mere laundry list of his Civil Rights triumphs makes emotionally-charged, throat-catching drama. In his 60 years of fighting the good fight, he became the nation's first African-American Solicitor General of the United States and then the first African-American Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States — a post he held with distinction and discernment from 1967 to his reluctant retirement in 1991, two years before his death.

Too often his name is lost in the folds of history books, but George Stevens Jr.'s biographical one-man play and Laurence Fishburne's flawless execution of it — both of them using heart and humor to humanize what could have been a dry and distancing history lesson — do much to amend this and move Marshall into a place of prominence.

"Everything," Fishburne said succinctly when asked later, at the Bryant Park Grill after-party, what his attraction was to the role. "The man's life, his style of storytelling, his success as a lawyer, the cases that he won, the change he caused — I mean, everything about this man is special."

And so is Fishburne's portrayal of him, from the moment he steps on the stage looking the exact image of Marshall with nothing more than a gray wavy wig and thick black horn-rims. Then, he removes the glasses and adjusts the body language, and we travel back to the humble beginnings of the story, which he proceeds to spin in a folksy, affecting manner. A great man's life passes before you, almost casually, like dinner conversation.

The woman who was married to Marshall for 37 years — his 80-year-old "Sissy," Cecilia Suyat — and one of their two sons joined the actor on stage with Stevens and director Leonard Foglia for what was, on both sides of the footlights, a teary curtain call.

 

Gina Torres, Maria Bello, Leelee Sobieski, Jamie de Roy with Larry Gatlin and Dee Hoty, Al Sharpton, Joanne Woodward, Charlie Rose and Thurgood Marshall, Jr. with widow Cecilia Suyat.
photos by Aubrey Reuben

"It was overwhelming," the widow admitted about her one night on Broadway. "Laurence Fishburne captured Thurgood's personality — he really did — and I thought George Stevens wrote a wonderful script — 100 percent correct, very accurate."

Thurgood Marshall Jr. chimed in with much the same sentiments. "Mr. Fishburne channeled him so beautifully. It was deeply moving because he captured all the vocal nuances and mannerisms. I marveled afterward, in fact, that I was not once distracted by the fact that this was Laurence Fishburne, whom I greatly admire."

Brother John, he said, "was planning to be here, but he's in charge of public safety in Virginia, and there were these tornadoes that struck so he had to reschedule."

Folgia's job was made easier by having a commanding presence in the title role. "Laurence is one of the bravest actors I've ever met. He is absolutely fearless, as I think you could see on the stage, and that kind of fearlessness comes to his work every single day. If you have that kind of fearlessness, you'll be able to try anything and you'll be able to do anything. He needs it for this particular play because the audience is another character in the play, and there are some nights where it's like a rock concert out there. We picked certain places for him to start off from, but then some audiences take off in a different way. Some audiences'll be very demonstrative in their responses, and your actions are coming over from the left side, so you have to direct his attention over there and acknowledge their response. It becomes a dialogue between the actor and the audience, and that's what's been thrilling."

He also held the halo-lighting to a minimum lest the character come over as saintly as his deeds. "What we did was hint at things. We hinted at things because they were correct for the format. It being a lecture, he really wouldn't go into very deep, dark things. He'd make a joke out of it. Y'know, he was a great storyteller in life. That's why he's such a great character to put on the stage because, in life, supposedly everything you read and everything people tell us is that he would always tell a story, and he would do different voices, and he would make people laugh.

"Sandra Day O'Connor told George Stevens that, when the judges were sitting around deliberating something, everyone would be talking about different points of law. When it reached Thurgood, he would always say, 'Let me tell you a story.' And then he would tell some very personal story about some convict that he had gotten out of prison, and she said the story would have so much more resonance as to what the case is all about than all the law that was being presented around the table. She actually said to him in his later days, when he felt very alone on the court being the only liberal left, 'Thurgood, you're the only person sitting on this court who is a genuine American hero, and you're the only person who would make it into the history books if you weren't on the Supreme Court. The rest of us are just lawyers.'"

At 76, Stevens is only now getting around to writing a Broadway play. "I've written screenplays," he allowed, "but I thought I'd wait until the last possible moment to write a Broadway play." Even better training for the assignment at hand, he writes and produces the annual American Film Institute salutes, which set the gold standard for television tributes. His specialty is a heartfelt, often poetical overview of a distinguished career — which, in essence, is a fair characterization of Thurgood.

What sparked Stevens' interest in Marshall was a 1991 TV-movie which he wrote and directed called "Separate But Equal," the social-changing saga of the Brown vs. the Board of Education school desegregation case on which Marshall was the lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and John W. Davis headed the old-guard opposition.

Casting-wise, this came down to Sidney Poitier and, in his final acting assignment, Burt Lancaster. "Burt was wonderful — I loved Burt," Stevens said on opening night. "He had trouble remembering his lines, and Burt had this Irish anger, and he would get angry at not remembering his lines, then he'd laugh and be a good sport about it."

There were more, much more, legal victories where Brown vs. the Board of Education came from, and the more Stevens read, the more he realized how this man changed the fabric of American life. "Thurgood Marshall is, I think, unarguably the most important lawyer of the 20th century — and not many people know about him and his enormous contribution. He was the architect of race relations, using the law. And I thought his story should be better known."

Hence, his Exhibit A-plus. And to present his case, he has Marshall reviewing his life before a group in the Howard University Law School Auditorium in Washington, DC — that's You the Audience, an old trick of his dad's. "I learned so much from my father, George Stevens, the director of 'Shane' and 'Giant' and 'The Diary of Anne Frank' and 'A Place in the Sun' — I should have mentioned it first," he said. "I learned from him a very important thing: respect for the audience. So, consequently, in everything that I do, I try to trust the audience. I think, too often, people don't."

Top-billed lead producer of Thurgood is Vernon Jordan, a Clinton advisor who got his law degree from Howard University. He was beaming with a sunburst of pride over his Broadway debut. "I saw grown men crying," he was happy to report.



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