He was a black justice in an era when America made a belated attempt to create justice for blacks.
“Thurgood,” the single-actor drama-lecture that opened Friday at Jubilee Theatre, tells the story of Thurgood Marshall, the first black man to serve on the Supreme Court. The format of the show finds Marshall, played superbly by Selmore Haines III, delivering a biographical oration at his alma mater, Washington, D.C.’s Howard University.
In that discourse, we learn about Marshall’s personal and romantic life, as well as his lengthy trail of courtroom battles in significant civil-rights case of the 1950s and ’60s. There are some surprises to be found there, such as the fact that Marshall was a college classmate of writer Langston Hughes.
The staging of this show, directed by TCU theater department head Harry Parker, is extremely creative. Parker moves Haines around and deploys complementing elements, such as the judicious (sorry) and timely use of projections, in such a way that this one-man show never becomes as stationary as it could easily be.
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Brian Clinnin’s set design is equally inspired and effective. His screen for the show’s projections is a contoured, all-white American flag (make of that what you will). It is just amazing how he makes that simple backdrop serve his purposes so well.
Haines’ portrayal of the title subject seems overly mannered at first. But he is so consistent that you ultimately buy into what he is doing, and the result is a performance with real heart and power.
The only flaw in Haines’ work at the opening-night performance seen for this review was that he fluffed far too many lines. But that is something that he should be able to iron out as the run continues. You have to cut any actor a little slack in the early performances of a one-man show because of the sheer quantity of lines to be memorized.
The bigger issue with this show, written by George Stevens Jr. (son of the famed film director responsible for “Giant”), is whether patrons will find it as enjoyable as it is admirable. It is certainly an important piece of theater, and a slam-dunk choice for this company to present during Black History Month. The script uses a surprising amount of humor in its effort to humanize its subject.
But it is also one court case after another presented in a college-lecture framework. It really asks the audience to be political and historical junkies for its 2-hour, 15-minute running time. So if you fall into one of those camps, you have found your show. For many, the idea of being lectured (at length) by a judge might not be the first choice for an entertaining evening at the theater.