Before the opening performance of Thurgood, director Lynn Meyers invited to the stage retired Federal Judge Nathaniel Jones, who knew the eminent attorney and Supreme Court justice. As a child in Youngstown, Ohio, Jones met the civil rights activist during times that were troubling and exhilarating. He recalled people exclaiming optimistically, “Thurgood’s coming.” Moments later the man himself arrived onstage in the form of actor Gavin Lawrence.
George Stevens Jr.’s play is a 90-minute monologue that chronologically presents the life of Thurgood Marshall. Speaking in an auditorium at Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C., Marshall reminisces about his life and how he chose not to challenge the legal system but to use it to advance the cause of civil rights. “My weapon,” he says, “is the law.” He became living proof of how one man can make a difference.
Lawrence does not possess Marshall’s physically imposing presence, but he fully captures the man’s persona, his virtue and his wicked sense of humor.
Thurgood is laced with anecdotes about his public and private life, and Lawrence adds in small touches — a way of holding his mouth, a wry sideways glance — that lend the air of believability to this portrait.
We witness him arguing Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court. Lawrence gives voice to others, from John W. Davis, the smooth defense attorney who opposed him in the landmark case, to President Lyndon Johnson, who named Marshall the first African-American justice on the high court.
But the man you’ll remember is the attorney from humble roots who changed our nation in a most dramatic way. His story is a great American tale of overcoming the obstacles of prejudice and hatred with intelligence, tenacity and good humor.
I’m glad that Thurgood’s come to Cincinnati. I hope you get a chance to meet him.
THURGOOD, presented by Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through Oct. 31. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.
See Rick Pender's feature story on ETC's 25th anniversary season here.