Reviewed by David Spencer
It's an interesting irony that when George Stevens wrote and directed the 3-hour mini-series Separate But Equal, dramatizing the battle against legalized school segregation, in which Brown vs. the Board of Education was argued in front of the Supreme Court—a mini-series which featured no less than Sidney Poitier playing NAACP jurist Thurgood Marshall, Burt Lancaster as his legal opponent John W. Davis and Richard Kiley as Chief Justice Earl Warren—it emerged as a well-meaning, academically respectable but surprisingly leaden docu-drama (or anyway, that's how it struck me and the colleagues who eagerly gathered to watch it on tape, just after it aired in 1991)...whereas with his one-actor play, Thurgood, Stevens manages to canvas the entirety of Marshall's legal career, with that case as the centerpiece, in 90 highly entertaining and informative intermissionless minutes.
That said, Thurgood is hardly the most exceptional one-man bio-drama ever written; the script is conspicuously neat and orderly, assiduously chronological, its paragraphs of language so well-formed that even the most realistic actor will never quite make you lose sight of the fact that he's memorized it (the ideal of course being the illusion that it's all being improvised on the spot); but then, that's endemic to almost all such evenings, with a mere handful of exceptions—and most of those anomalies (the two most famous being of course Hal Holbrook's Mark Twain Tonight and Paul Shyre's Will Rogers' USA, performed by James Whitmore) are presented as if actual speaking concerts, the material drawn from their writings.
Thurgood has no such presentational conceit: the title figure enters and just starts addressing us, no context to provide urgency or need; yet star Laurence Fishburne, manages to quickly deflect us from wondering why Marshall stopped by the Booth Theatre to tell us all this stuff. Implicit in his demeanor and in the history relates is the message that This is stuff you ought to know, because it affects lives, and it's key to how people get on in the world. There seems a tacit assumption that we've gathered here because we're all good people and true, in need of inspiration during troubled times. And to paraphrase a hipster expression, it works well enough for jazz. Under Leonard Foglia's agreeably invisible direction (with a one-actor show, that's a good thing), Fishburne has both the gravitas of a historical heavyweight and the easy delivery of a born raconteur, and you're in good hands while in his company. And a little sorry to see him go when he's done.
Would that education might always be so painless...