PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Thurgood — Accent on the Good

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Thurgood — Accent on the Good
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.
Laurence Fishburne, George Stevens Jr. and Leonard Foglia.
Laurence Fishburne, George Stevens Jr. and Leonard Foglia. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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.

Bill Rollick has a couple of other notches on his producing belt (the Tony-winning Journey's End and the Tony-worthy The Seafarer) — plus, he has fallen heir to the James Bond movie franchise ("My uncle was 'Cubby' Broccoli, and my cousin Barbara Broccoli is now producing the 22nd Bond film. It's called 'A Quantum of Solace,' which is actually written by Ian Fleming," but not of course as a Bond yarn) — and Thurgood was something that had special importance for him.

"This is one of the most interesting experiences you can have in life," he observed, "when you can actually work and help someone create a piece of history that then becomes a piece of art. This is something that every child in the United States of America should see. It's compelling — compelling to see that you can go in just a short time — a generation — from a slave to a justice of the supreme court. It's almost an honor to be able to produce this. Laurence portrays this individual to where everyone feels — when he puts on that robe as a Chief Justice — we're there. We don't see that many real plays in the sense that the real drama always gets washed out. I watched the audience tonight…people were riveted."

Roundly seconding that motion was Caroline Rhea: "It's such an important story it should be mandatory for our schools. And it's the most well-earned bow that I have ever seen. I've loved him since he was Cowboy Curtis on 'Pee-wee's Playhouse.'"

Other confirmed Fishburne fans included indie actress Lori Perry and Fishburne's co-star in "Attack on Precinct 13," Maria Bello. Both of them were wowed by his work.

Foglia had his following as well: Terrence McNally (the Tony-winning Master Class), and Leslie Uggams, his last Broadway leading lady (in On Golden Pond).

Larry Gatlin and Dee Hoty never quite co-starred in The Will Rogers Follies, but they sat together at the party, and she was still singing the praises of the play: "I had a wonderful time — beautifully written, brilliantly acted — and Gina Torres [Mrs. Laurence Fishburne] is an old friend from The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public." Hoty just started rehearsals for Pure Country, a four-week workshop for producer Randall Wreghitt. "Pure Country, as in twang. Yes, I'm back in my cowboy boots! Stephen Dorff is the composer; John Bettis wrote the lyrics; Pete Masterson co-wrote the book and is directing. Carlin Glynn [Mrs. Masterson] is in the show, as I am — so there are two Miss Monas in this show, as well as Lauren Kennedy, who was one of my co-stars in the ill-fated Lone Star Love last fall, and Michael Park, who was in [Smokey Joe's Café] and is on 'As the World Turns.' It's a great cast. It's a wonderful company. And I really like the music and the story. It was a film with George Strait in the early '90s. That's the basis of it, but it's a very different show. It's about a country star."

Another workshopper is Lillias White, who arrived at the theatre fresh from rehearsal. She is readying a workshop of Leap of Faith with Raul Esparza, Elizabeth Stanley, Terrence Mann, Brandon Victor Dixon, Eric L. Christian and director Taylor Hackford.

Brigadoon will be reemerging from the mist next season, and playwright John Guare said he's toiling over the adaptation, which, contrary to published reports, has not been backdated to pre-World War II 1939. "It's not true — it was never true," he said. "How that ever got into print I'll never know." I suggested maybe The Post's "Mouth Over Broadway." And Guare refined that slightly to "Or some other organ."

Rob Ashford, who will turn into a hyphenate with this Brigadoon (choreographer and director), confirmed the time zone. "It's set in 1946, the original time, but," he added, "all the book has been changed, completely. We're just trying to raise the stakes a bit and make it a little more earthy and Celtic — a little more grounded and not like a town of ballerinas. Our designer, Christopher Oram, is in town now from London. We've been working all week on the set model and looking at stuff, and we're having auditions. I'd say we're halfway through a cast. We're getting there."

Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Bounce, on its new bounce to Broadway — down at The Public — will be without its Washington lead, Richard Kind: "Steve and John were very nice. They took me out after Candide to say I was talked about and they loved me, but they're recasting the whole thing."

Last to arrive at the theatre and last to arrive at the party was Reverend Al Sharpton, who quickly broke into a chorus of highly printable quotes: "It was entertaining and educational at the same time. I was moved. I got to meet Marshall in his later years, and Fishburne really caught him. It's a must-see for everybody."

The evening's wildly mixed bag of politicians and performers included Paul Newman (who last played the Booth in Our Town) and Joanne Woodward (whose Westport Country Playhouse originally produced Thurgood), Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, Chicago's Brenda Braxton, TV's Charlie Rose, Donna Murphy and Sean Elliott, Liz Callaway (fresh from two two-hour all-Sondheim concerts in Barcelona — "in 'Barcelona'!" — and hoping to reprise them in America), Cicely Tyson, director Jack O'Brien (between workshops right now — Catch Me If You Can and a project he and producer Bill Haber are cooking up for Jeremy Irons), Commissioner of New York Schools Joel Klein, movie duo Leelee Sobieski of "Eyes Wide Shut" with Matthew Davis of "Legally Blonde," Cheyenne Jackson and Kerry Butler bopping over after Xanadu, Cornelia Guest, director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall, the Mr. Left and Mrs. Right of political reportage (James Carville and Mary Matalin), Christine Andreas and, fresh from a new first, The Met-debuting Marian Seldes.

Ethel Kennedy and her daughter, Rory, eventually settled at a table with a sign that drew the most double-takes of the evening: "Reserved for BLACK" (as in, you'll be relieved to know, Debra Black, the producing partner of Daryl Roth).

The curtain call at <i>Thurgood.</i>
The curtain call at Thurgood. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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