‘Thurgood’ Hits Broadway

A Conversation with Laurence Fishburne

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Like actor Laurence Fishburne, I was in elementary school when the Thurgood Marshall was appointed to the Supreme Court. Today, the Tony Award-winning actor is breathing new life into the late Justice's words and his struggles in "Thurgood," an inspirational one-man play in that has begun a limited 16-week run on Broadway.

July will mark the 100th birthday of "Mr. Civil Rights," as Marshall was called in a 1955 TIME magazine cover story. With wavy hair combed straight back and sporting a mustache, Fishburne, in a poster for the production, so closely resembles Marshall on that TIME cover that Time-Warner forced the play's producers to change the poster's red background (a TIME staple) to blue, so people would not confuse the publicity shot with the original..

It's hard now to understand how my friends and I growing up in Cincinnati could have been unaware of the epic life Marshall led as counsel for the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund in the thick of the civil rights struggle before President Lyndon Johnson appointed him the first black Supreme Court Justice in 1965. But somehow, we had no sense of racial strife in our young lives in urban Cincinnati. We lived in an integrated neighborhood; the family next door to mine was white and we kids were playmates. Even before I could read, I regularly saw the troubling coverage of the Civil Rights movement in Life magazine, Ebony, Jet and the local weekly black newspaper, to which my parents subscribed. But watching Fishburne recall Marshall's life in "Thurgood" (written by playwright George Stevens Jr. and directed by Leonard Foglia) gave me a close-up view of what it was like in the trenches of the fight for racial equality.

Marshall made harrowing trips throughout the South for the NAACP to look into lynchings. There's a scene in "Thurgood" where Fishburne recalls the time Marshall nearly got lynched himself as he was litigating in the aftermath of a race riot in Columbia, S. C., in 1945.

"Thurgood" also deals with an episode in which Marshall went to Korea in 1950 to investigate complaints about unfair treatment and punishment of black soldiers. Fishburne re-enacts Marshall's confrontation with Douglas MacArthur about the general's failure to integrate the army despite a 1948 executive order to do so from President Harry Truman. The justice's impressions of General MacArthur: "He was as biased as any person I've run across."

In "Thurgood," Fishburne also quotes Marshall on Martin Luther King Jr.

"I used to have a lot of fights with Martin about his theory about disobeying the law. He kept talking about Thoreau, and I told him, "If I understand it, Thoreau wrote his book in jail."

Fishburne's compelling performance is timely in another respect. Marshall won the Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation litigation in 1954. But his other seminal cases guaranteed the right of Negroes in Texas and South Carolina to vote in primaries in the early 1940s. What would Marshall think about today's presidential election that has come down to a battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries? Fishburne had an answer in a pre-production chat--for which he arrived wearing his customary black tee shirt, the traditional attire of members of the Guggenheim Motorcycle club he founded along with actor pals Dennis Hopper and Jeremy Irons.

How does it feel being back on Broadway?

Fishburne: I'm excited to be here.