There are several larger-than-life figures highlighted in George Stevens Jr.’s one-man play “Thurgood.”
The main one is Thurgood Marshall himself, the ground-breaking civil rights attorney who became the first African-American associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
The others are the people who led him on his path, from his father to his mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston, a Howard University professor who inspired Marshall to fight segregation across the country.
They are played (along with all the other characters) by Montae Russell, who gives a vigorous and passionate performance at Florida Studio Theatre under Kate Alexander’s sure-handed direction.
On Bruce Price’s mostly bare stage dominated by an imposing image of an all-white American flag, the play is a sort of dramatized biographical lecture delivered to students at Howard University. He takes us from the political and social debates his father led at the dinner table when Thurgood was a young boy to his years traveling across the South and winning lawsuit after lawsuit to break down the separate but equal laws.
We first meet Marshall as he hobbles out with a cane to share his life and career lessons.
“Law is a weapon if you know how to use it,” he says early on, teasingly quizzing us on key cases in civil rights history, beginning with Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which established the separate but equal standards in all areas of life. That case was the key to his life’s work.
Suddenly, Russell tosses aside the cane to become his more agile younger self and takes us back to 1908 Baltimore, where he grew up enduring racism and working to overcome it.
At Howard, he learned from his classmate, poet Langston Hughes, that “one man can make a difference.” And from Houston he learned to “use the law to obtain justice. He said that a lawyer who is not a social engineer is a social parasite.”
The play is filled with such pithy quotes, sort of aphorisms, of the powerful ideas and ideals that propelled Marshall through his years with the NAACP, for which he successfully argued in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, which helped to end the separate but equal standard. He then had to continue that fight on numerous levels.
In “Thurgood,” we learn about the important moments, his attraction to women, his two marriages and his pride in his children, but it’s all briefly told. Over the course of the 90-minute running time, the play doesn’t dig beneath the facts to give us a fuller picture of what he was like, though you certainly learn what he did.
There were a couple of moments when I thought of the play as a kind of dramatized Wikipedia entry, but Russell gives it a commanding heart and soul. He grabs your attention from his first step on stage and keeps as Marshall works to convey the value and importance of his work.
You can’t help feeling inspired, proud of his achievements, sorrow for the laws that created such challenges in his life and a hope that more people will learn and grow from these powerful experiences.
By George Stevens Jr. Directed by Kate Alexander. Reviewed Dec. 13, Florida Studio Theatre Keating Theatre, 124. 1 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota. Through Feb. 22. Tickets are $18-$32. 366-9000; floridastudiotheatre.org