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.
Most people know you as a film actor.
Fishburne: I'm an actor, period. I've been acting on stage since I was 10. I've been working in film and television for a long time. Acting is acting. I'd do it for free. But the fact is that they've offered me a chance to come to Broadway and see my name in lights…
Are there any special challenges about a one-man play?
Fishburne: Oh, yeah. I'm sure there are challenges. Having to memorize the whole text. Not having anybody to pass the ball to on stage with you. However, the most important thing Leonard Foglia, the director, said to me is that this is not a one-man show. I actually have a scene partner. My scene partner is the audience. I don't know quite what to expect. But I'm looking forward to breaking through that fourth wall; playing scenes with the audience is going to be fantastic.
Are you nervous?
Fishburne: Just about getting to the theater. And what will happen if I get heckled. What if someone yells, "Shut up Fishburne? Sit down." I don't know. I'll find out.
How did you research Marshall?
Fishburne: I didn't know very much about Thurgood Marshall. He was appointed to the Supreme Court when I was six. The things I learned about him blew my mine. His life —his legal training under Charles Hamilton Houston at Howard University, all of his cases as legal counsel to the NAACP—opened my eyes to the length, depth and breadth of the civil rights struggle in this country. I'm reading Juan Williams' biography, "Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary. In many respects Marshall was a revolutionary. But we're not accustomed to people who work within the system. We celebrate those who work outside of the system—those who are either rebellious or are outlaws.
But Thurgood Marshall was really a man who was determined to work within the system.
Describe your interpretation.
Fishburne: It's all there on the page. His history is very clear and well documented. I'm just trying to have fun. The most wonderful thing I learned is that he was truly a great storyteller. That's one thing I'm going to use to give people a window into him. That's going to be my tact in trying to portray him. And one thing I want people to get is that Marshall was very funny. He had a sense of humor. The idea for me is that when people come out of the theater they'll say, "Wow, he tells a great story."
In your performance you allow Marshall's rough edges to show.
Fishburne: Yes, of course. Marshall was long on understanding. He also had a short fuse. For example, his relationship with his first wife: his own account of his first marriage was that he wasn't the best husband.
What does Thurgood Marshall mean to you?
Fishburne: Marshall talked about going to Lincoln University with Langston Hughes in one quote. What Marshall said he learned from Langston Hughes is that one person can make a difference. Well, Justice Marshall made a difference to a lot of people's lives.
You resemble Marshall in your stage makeup.
Fishburne: I look in the mirror and I see me. I'm not going to be doing an impression of Justice Marshall. But I do want people to come away from the play thinking that they've had an intimate evening with Justice. Marshall.
Do Marshall's words and actions still have meaning today?
Fishburne: I Think Thurgood Marshall is always going to be relevant.
Has immersing yourself in Justice Marshall's life and speaking his words caused you to be more politically involved this presidential election?
Fishburne: It probably has caused me to become more politically involved. I'm excited about Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton becoming president of this country. I never thought I'd see something like that in my lifetime.
What would Marshall say about the presidential campaign and especially the Democratic contest?
Fishburne: Thurgood Marshall would probably smile.
Connie Leslie is a writer for Newsweek.